Almost exactly a year ago, federal prosecutors in Boston unveiled a college admissions bribery scheme and charged dozens of parents with doctoring their children's applications to make them look like top athletes. That same month, a "Saturday Night Live" sketch mocked a college admissions board obsessed with fame and wealth and uninterested in academic talent, misplacing the source of a scandal centered in athletic departments.
Seven months later, the cable channel Lifetime released a made-for-TV movie about the bribery scheme called "The College Admissions Scandal."
“Two desperate mothers involved in a nationwide scandal,” the movie trailer intoned. "A ripped-from-the-headlines feature!"
Then, in January, the CBS dramatic series "Bull" aired an episode called "Quid Pro Quo," about a Varsity Blues-esque scandal. The episode features a fictional Hudson University and a celebrated doctor arrested for alleged conspiracy, just after performing life-saving surgery. "I never conspired with anyone to do anything," the doctor tells his lawyers, insisting on his innocence. "The first I heard about a bribe was early this morning when I was arrested."
The story of the case known as Varsity Blues has permeated pop culture — even before all of the individual cases against the more than 50 defendants have been resolved. A series of hearings, guilty pleas and short prison sentences is still unfolding in the Moakley Federal Courthouse in the Seaport district.
The saga appears to have seeped so quickly into mass media because of the anti-elite, anti-establishment mood prevailing in the country. The real-life Varsity Blues case features rich people apparently willing to break the law to obtain even more privileges for their children.
"True crime stories have always been popular," said Owen Eagan, who teaches communication theory at Emerson College and focuses on the influence of mass media.
Eagan said Varsity Blues has so inflamed the public mind because it has so many extraordinary threads. "It includes celebrity, wealth, power, class. But at the heart of the story, it's really about privilege," he said.
With middle-class students increasingly trying to distinguish themselves in sports like tennis and soccer, Eagan said, the Varsity Blues story has legs.
"Even playing sports in high school is extremely competitive, and to play at that level, typically you have to play club sports and invest in your children's activities at a very early age,” he said. “So this story, it resonates for a lot of families."
Eagan suggested this story would still be in the headlines without the celebrities. “It just makes it more sensational since these celebrities with access to wealth and power are gaming the system," he explained.
Varsity Blues has also captured the attention of college officials.
"[Actress Lori Loughlin's] daughter being an influencer who's talking about how little she wants to be in college — it's just made for a Lifetime movie. It's beautiful," said Andrew Flagel, vice president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. “It's a train wreck happening in front of us, and from such pure image — the Aunt Becky image then turning to this role of a cheater-in-chief."
Loughlin, who played Aunt Becky in the television series "Full House," allegedly paid $500,000 to have her two daughters accepted to the University of Southern California as members of the rowing team.
In a 1993 episode of "Full House" called "Be True to Your Pre-School," Aunt Becky’s husband lies on an application about their twins’ academic abilities to get them into a prestigious preschool. Then, Aunt Becky confesses to the principal.
Before Loughlin faces a trial scheduled for later this year, Flagel said, the story has tapped into deep-seated skepticism that many Americans have about college admissions — and also about Loughlin's legal defense.
"If you're paying someone to fake an exam or you're photo-shopping your kid onto a horse, clearly you know that you're doing something askance,” Flagel said. “The sad part is we've allowed privilege to have such a massive role in admissions, that in popular media that is coming up again and again."
Flagel acknowledged higher education has taken it on the chin, but he noted the scandal has largely stayed out of admissions offices.
“The scandal itself happened in athletic offices,” he said. “We haven't seen a university that was really itself buying into this dreadful behavior."
Still, Flagel said colleges need to do a much better job of being transparent about what goes on in admissions and acknowledging the tremendous role that wealth and privilege play in the process, legally.
Last month, the University of Southern California, which has been at the center of the scandal, took one step in that direction. USC is making tuition free for students from families with incomes of $80,000 or less.
In the episode of the CBS series "Bull," jury consultant Jason Bull tells his client, referring to prosecutors, “Well, they must have some proof. You've been indicted by a federal grand jury.”
But the doctor beats the charge after it is revealed his late father bribed an admissions officer, unbeknownst to his young son.