In the opening statement of former University of Southern California (USC) water polo coach Jovan Vavic’s “Varsity Blues” bribery trial, partner Stephen G. Larson stated that his client did not take bribes and “was doing exactly what USC wanted” when he tried to use athletic recruits to fundraise for the school, The Boston Globe, Law360, and The Associated Press reported.
“USC suffers from a certain degree of institutional schizophrenia,” Stephen said, and The Boston Globe noted that he added “that the college wants to project itself ‘as this pristine institution of higher academic learning, where the only thing that matters is your grades and competency . . . and money has nothing to do with it.'”
In actuality, money “has everything to do with it. Donations are the lifeblood of the institution,” Stephen stated to the federal jury. In fact, Law360 added that Stephen explained on behalf of his client, “accepting donations from the families of recruited athletes was not only the norm at USC but encouraged by the university’s top brass amid a $7 billion capital campaign.”
Mr. Vavic, a decorated coach who won the school 16 national water polo championships, was “told by [USC] officials to try to recruit players whose families could make significant donations,” The Boston Globe explained. But, while the “prosecutors allege that [he] accepted $200,000 in bribes from William ‘Rick’ Singer, a California college admissions consultant who masterminded the sprawling bribery scheme,” Stephen told the federal jury that Mr. Vavic “never took bribes or lied to help applicants get admitted.”
“The evidence will show that the college admissions scandal is real, but Coach Vavic was not a part of it,” Stephen explained in his opening statement, as reported by The Associated Press. “Every dollar that parents donated to USC you will find stayed at USC. He did not take a dime.”
In response to the government’s allegations that Mr. Vavic “fabricated the athletic credentials of two applicants . . . and flagged them as water polo recruits, securing their admission to USC” in exchange for Mr. Singer funding “the private high school tuition for [Mr.] Vavic’s two sons, The Boston Globe noted that Stephen “told jurors that [Mr.] Vavic’s sons were extraordinary students and water polo players and [Mr.] Singer awarded them scholarships through his nonprofit to pay for their tuition.” At least, Law360 embellished from Stephen’s argument, Mr. Vavic thought “his children’s education was being funded by a real nonprofit.”
Stephen said that the government, Law360 reported, “has stitched together ‘snippets’ of evidence to make the former coach look guilty . . . [but] the whole story paints a different picture: one in which [Mr.] Vavic himself was tricked by [Mr.] Singer.”
“[Mr.] Singer purposefully withheld the illegal aspects of the plot from [Mr.] Vavic,” Law360 noted that Stephen argued to the jury. “The former coach had no part in creating the phony resumes . . . and [Mr.] Singer convinced [Mr.] Vavic that every athlete he recommended for admission actually played water polo.”
“Rick Singer and his cohorts lied to Coach Vavic continuously,” Stephen declared in his opening statement. “Rick Singer is ground zero in this case, and I think it’s telling that the government does not call him [as a witness]. Singer is like Two-Face in Batman.”
Stephen is representing Mr. Vavic, the only coach in the “Varsity Blues” scandal to take his case to trial, before the federal jury in Boston with partner Kori Bell.
Read the full article by Shelley Murphy of The Boston Globe here (subscription required), the full article by Rachel Scharf of Law360 here (subscription required), and the full article by The Associated Press shared on ESPN.com here covering the opening statements on March 10.