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MIT degree fraud by golf designer shames American sports

The LGPA has stayed above the controversial putter scandal.
The LGPA has stayed above the controversial putter scandal.
Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

The honest majority of American athletics is trying to rebuild public trust after high profile scandals at the USPS sponsored Armstrong cycling team and the 162 game suspension of New York Yankees baseball player Alex Rodriguez for banned steroid injections. But yet another recent scandal spotlights key reasons why cheating has become so common. Two institutions Americans count on to keep the sports world honest, the mainstream media and NCAA universities, have almost no budgets to take effective action against circulating false or misleading claims about NCAA credentials.

The latest sports business scandal involves false claims about the credentials of the inventor and promoter of the “Yar putter.” The inventor used the title “Dr.” and claimed the doctorate was from MIT. Also known as Essay Vanderbilt, the golf entrepreneur claimed to have a business degree from the University of Pennsylvania.” The advertising pitchman for the “Yar putter,” CBS sportscaster Gary McCord, added the credibility of the CBS reputation for excellence in journalism to these false claims.

In his investigative report published online last week on January 15, Caleb Hannan detailed the scale of deceit and how common this type of tall tale has become: “Yes, Dr. V had fabricated a résumé that helped sell the Oracle putter under false pretenses. But she was far from the first clubmaker to attach questionable scientific value to a piece of equipment just to make it more marketable. Sure, her lies were more audacious than the embellishments found in late-night infomercials. But her ultimate intent — to make a few bucks, or, maybe, to be known as a genius — remained the same. Whatever the answers, Gary McCord would not be able to help me find them. The man who had once been so willing to talk stopped responding to my emails. Finally, a spokesperson at CBS told me that McCord had ‘nothing more to add to the story.’”

Faking an Ivy League degree is a lot easier than many people suspect. The actual diplomas are in Latin in unconventional calligraphy. Any con artist can pay a calligrapher to create a Latin text with the name of an Ivy League University on it and conjugate the Latin verb for “graduated” to mean “not graduated” with a single consonant. They can hang this in their office, post it on their business website and only a meticulous professor of Latin would recognize that it was proof of not graduating as opposed to a credential that the proud possessor actually earned the coveted degree.

The scale of faked degree claims and grossly exaggerated degree claims exceeds the budgets of leading universities to do much about it. Erez Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel, founding directors of Harvard University's Cultural Observatory with genuine academic credentials, have developed data analysis tools that show false claims have reached epidemic proportions. The number of claims of Harvard credentials in online biographies outnumbers the living alumni population from accredited degree programs by three to one. Some are outright fabrications, such as the non-existent degrees of Essay Vanderbilt.

Often, attendance at one of thousands of seminars or fundraisers hosted by a prestigious university is presented as some type of academic credential although the programs do not issue academic credits that are accepted for transfer to actual degree programs or qualify for financial aid. For example, San Diego area radio business commentator Gabriel Wisdom was introduced in a September 23, 2013 interview by Wade Fransson with the promo: “from giving surf condition reports on the California coast to graduating from Harvard Business School, Gabe Wisdom draws from a wealth of experience.“ But Wisdom does not have a graduate school business degree at all. He has a two-year Associate’s degree in radio broadcasting from Orange Coast College, a community college with a solid reputation but no bachelor’s degree programs. Wisdom did attend a summer school adult education program organized by Harvard Business School, but the program does not require completion of an undergraduate college degree and does not issue undergraduate or graduate degrees.

The Grantland investigative report is bad news. But if the NCAA wakes up to the problem and takes effective action to stop degrading the value of actual degrees, it will be good news in the future.

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