Oh, Felicity Huffman, say it ain’t so.  For 20 years, the actor you may know as Lynette Scavo on “Desperate Housewives” was a role model in our house for a role she had played earlier. Now, she is a role model for how the elite cheat.

Damn.

Huffman was indicted on Tuesday by the federal Justice Department with paying a fixer $15,000 to help her daughter get into her chosen college. Fifteen years ago, Lynette Scavo did the same thing, right down to the $15,000, to get her TV twins into private school. The feds indicted 50 people for paying or taking money to slip kids into colleges that otherwise might have shut the admissions door.

My late wife and I knew Felicity Huffman as Dana Whitaker, a gutsy and effective producer of “Sports Night” on an ABC show also named “Sports Night.” Marilyn and I loved “Sports Night” because it showed a woman succeeding in a world dominated by men, the world of sports broadcasting. It aired late, but is was a must see, even for us, who lived on the early-to-bed schedules of farmers.

Whitaker worked tirelessly each night to put on a show that tightly resembled “Sports Center,” the ESPN program updating virtually everything that had happened in the past few hours in (mostly men’s) sports, especially games on which people wager.

This scandal is an extension of the system that colleges and universities have created for judging applicants for admission. While no college was charged with criminal acts, they have all built a system that rewards applicants who can pony up buckets of money.  It’s no wonder their system was hacked by William Singer, owner of a college prep business.

Singer hacked it in several ways.  He said some kids get into college through the front door, with grades, extracurricular activities and test scores. Or through the back door, when daddy promises to build a building, or mommy graduated from dear ole alma mater and wants sonny boy or l’il Susie to matriculate there.  That kid is called a “legacy.”

Singer said he created a “side door” for kids who couldn’t hack it on their own or whose parents didn’t want to risk $20 million or so to build a building and still not be sure of admission. So Singer hired lookalikes to take standardized tests for children of the wealthy, bribed coaches in minor sports (sailing, tennis) to tell the admissions officers that the kid of Singer’s client was an athlete and so deserved extra consideration and  photoshopped pictures of kids to make them appear to be athletes. And so on.

The colleges where coaches were accused of taking bribes included the University of Southern California, Stanford, Yale, UCLA, Wake Forest, Texas and Georgetown. While no colleges are charged, lawyers are already suing some of them on behalf of students denied entrance to these schools. The law may move slowly, lawyers don’t.

Some heads have rolled. The sailing coach at Stanford and the water polo coach at USC were fired. The UCLA men’s soccer coach, Wake’s women’s volleyball coach and Texas’s men’s tennis coach were placed on leave.

More heads should be on the chopping block, and not just coaches. How could admissions counselors let all this go on without checking, say, a kid’s claim to be a tennis champ? How could the managers of the entrance exams not develop a system of identity checks that ensures the right sonny boy or l’il Susie is taking the test?

This scandal is a perversion, not a result, of college athletics. Athletics has done a great deal to make college possible for well-rounded kids who need added consideration, especially those coming from bad high schools.

Here are ways Singer used athletics to get unathletic kids into college as “athletes”:

• A girl who didn’t play soccer became a soccer recruit at Yale. Her parents paid $1.2 million.

• A boy applying to USC was said to be learning disabled so he could take a standardized test with a proctor who’d make sure he got a good score. His parents paid $50,000 or more.

• A girl without an oar became a crew recruit at USC after a photo of another girl in a boat was sent in to show her prowess. Her parents sent in $200,000.

This scandal is firmly based in the colleges’ preference for the wealthy, especially the wealthy whose family members attended that college. The “legacy.”

A woman told my wife, who was working at the Vanderbilt University Graduate School of Management in 1969, that she was distraught that sonny boy was going to Duke.

“His muhthah went to Vanduhbilt, his fahthah went to Vanduhbilt, his grandmuhthah went to Vanduhbilt, and when he said he was goin’ to Duke, I thought ah’d die,” she drawled. That boy was a legacy, but he thumbed his nose at Vandy.  His loss.

More than a few folks you know of have played the legacy card. George W. Bush got into Yale on the basis of something other than academics. His fahthah went to Yale, and his grandfahthah went to Yale. George W. was not an academic star at Yale, though he followed his grandfather onto the cheerleading squad.

But I can testify that the legacy card doesn’t always work by itself. When I was looking at colleges 60 years ago, I wrote Amherst College. My father had graduated there in 1922, so I was a legacy. He became an editor and a teacher, businesses no one enters for the money. I got back a curt note that said, in effect, “Don’t bother.” So I didn’t.

Listen to Andrew E. Leeling, the U.S. attorney in Massachusetts: “The real victims in this case are the hardworking students” who were displaced in the admissions process by “far less qualified students and their families who simply bought their way in.”

Dead on.

Maybe Bob Neal should have told Amherst he was a javelin thrower.  On second thought, he’s happy with the education he paid for (himself) at Rockhurst and UMKC.

filed under: