'Healthy Pro Athlete' In 'Varsity Blues' Can't Get Virus Release

By Chris Villani
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Law360 (July 20, 2020, 1:55 PM EDT) -- A former University of Texas tennis coach serving six months for taking a $100,000 bribe in the "Varsity Blues" college admissions case will not be able to get out of prison early due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a judge ruled Sunday, describing the defendant as "a healthy professional athlete."

Michael Center, 56, had asked U.S. District Judge Richard G. Stearns to shorten his time in prison and let him serve out his sentence in home confinement, an increasingly common request for inmates during the ongoing health crisis given the inability to socially distance behind bars.

But Judge Stearns, while sympathetic to the perils of being incarcerated during a pandemic, said in a brief order that Center does not meet the high bar for early release.

"Although Center states that his medical history includes two bouts of pneumonia at some unspecified time in the past and a recurrent upper respiratory infection, he is by all accounts, a healthy professional athlete," the judge said.

Judge Stearns agreed with prosecutors that Center's bid for home confinement was not "extraordinary and compelling," citing the language in the statute, because it was based only on the concern of contracting COVID-19 while in prison.

The judge noted Center is serving his time at FCI Three Rivers, Texas, Satellite Camp, a minimum-security facility in a state that has seen a sharp spike in COVID-19 cases.

"While I am as concerned as any judge with the impact of COVID-19 on the prison population, unless society is to make the decision that all prisoners should be released because of the pandemic," Judge Stearns wrote, "there must be a means of differentiating those eligible for release from those who are not."

According to his motion, Center has had an exemplary record while in prison and is nearing the end of his time at FCI Three Rivers. He is scheduled to be transferred to a halfway house on July 30 and has a presumptive release date of Sept. 17.

His attorney did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday. A representative for the U.S. attorney's office declined to comment.

Center, who was once seemingly destined for a hall of fame career leading a powerhouse Longhorns tennis program, was described as a "broken man" by his attorney and sobbed openly when Judge Stearns handed down the six-month term in February.

Center worked with "Varsity Blues" mastermind William "Rick" Singer, taking $100,000 to pass off a Singer client as a tennis recruit as part of the admissions scheme. It was the only time he worked with Singer and he pocketed $60,000 while giving the rest to the tennis program.

Prosecutors said that in November 2014, Singer emailed a high school student's transcript and application essays to Martin Fox, who ran a tennis academy in Houston. Fox then forwarded the email to Center.

In December 2014, Center emailed the student's application to an athletics administrator at the university to ensure the student would be designated as a tennis recruit, prosecutors said, and arranged for the student to receive a partial scholarship.

The student was admitted in April 2015 and added to the tennis roster, but he voluntarily withdrew from the team before he matriculated and renounced his scholarship, the government said.

Center was fired after being charged, then waived indictment and pled guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and honest services wire fraud. Just two months after his 2019 arrest, the Longhorns won the national championship.

The government is represented by Eric S. Rosen, Justin D. O'Connell, Kristen A. Kearney and Leslie Wright of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Massachusetts.

Center is represented by John H. Cunha of Cunha & Holcomb PC.

The case is U.S. v. Center, case number 1:19-cr-10116, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts.

--Editing by Marygrace Murphy.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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April 08, 2019

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