Sean Hannity's private plane and the Wake Forest tennis team: A morality fable
During a broadcast about two weeks ago, Fox News personality Sean Hannity seized on a favorite trope, saying that former Secretary of State John Kerry, recently appointed to a post as climate envoy by President Biden, "frequently enjoys the comfort, the convenience of his very own private jet" while advocating for policies to combat climate change. Publicly available records, however, raise abundant questions about Hannity's own use of his private jet in support of his son's tennis career at Wake Forest University, and his relationship with the team's star coach, Tony Bresky.
According to NCAA and sports law experts, the timeline of those events exhibits an unusual and at times suspicious level of engagement between Hannity and Bresky, including but not limited to the school's frequent use of Hannity's plane. Facts of that relationship also appear to have triggered a previously unreported federal grand jury investigation — which has been closed without indictments, to be clear — into events surrounding the recruitment of Hannity's son, specifically the striking fact that Bresky purchased a luxury home next door to one bought by Hannity, according to documents obtained by Salon and a person familiar with the case.
Hannity, through his lawyer, Charles Harder, and Bresky, through Wake Forest, both denied ever being aware of any such federal investigation.
More broadly, the story exposes uncomfortable truths about the quiet leverage of wealth, power and race in collegiate athletics, particularly in low-revenue sports such as tennis that don't have as many eyes on them, or marquee athletes. As the "Varsity Blues" college admissions bribery scandal demonstrated, those programs have been particularly ripe for exploitation, some of which, in those cases, veered into criminality. The Hannity example does not appear to rise to that level — no specific crimes have been alleged, and the grand jury investigation has been closed — it shines a light into one of the NCAA's many legal gray zones, where law and ethics may not always go hand in glove.
The facts of the case
Patrick Hannity, Sean Hannity's son, is currently a redshirt senior on the tennis team at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He signed with the school in November 2016, and officially enrolled and joined the team in January 2017.
In January 2016, about nine months before Patrick officially applied to Wake Forest, his father, through a shell company, became the registered owner of a 2004 Gulfstream G200 jet, with the tail number N329PK. By Feb. 10, according to photograph metadata, Hannity had detailed the plane in black and gold — the colors of the Wake Forest Demon Deacons. In more recent photos, the jet sports the Wake Forest logo on its tail.
Then, on June 23, 2016, before Patrick Hannity applied to Wake Forest and five months before he signed, his father's shell company SPMK XXII NC (created about two weeks earlier) purchased a house for $813,000 on Turnberry Forest Court in Winston-Salem. Three months later, in September, the Wake Forest men's tennis head coach, Tony Bresky, contracted to buy the house next door for $820,000, according to public property records. Bresky and his wife closed their deal about a month after Patrick Hannity signed with Wake Forest.
That's odd right off the bat," Ricky Volante, a sports and entertainment lawyer, told Salon. "It's suspicious, but it's hard to nail down what it means. It's far outside the norm for a parent to be purchasing property in the area, with the coach moving in next door before his son sent in his application."
According to Wake Forest, Patrick applied to Wake Forest at some point in the fall of 2016, and was accepted in October. In a tennis-themed Fox Business appearance on Aug. 29 of that year, in which Sean Hannity competed in a serving contest with a few of his on-air colleagues, he said that his son was "going to Wake Forest. He's so happy."
One of Patrick Hannity's coaches at Wake Forest moved into Hannity's new home in Winston-Salem almost immediately, and lived there with Patrick for some time. At some point in 2016, Cory Parr, who had earlier coached Patrick as a junior player on Long Island (where the Hannity family primarily resides), began listing his residence at the Turnberry Forest Court address, according to North Carolina voter and business records. Weeks after Patrick enrolled, the university announced that Parr, himself a Wake tennis graduate and former all-American, would come aboard as a volunteer assistant coach.
In legal terms, it is difficult to assess the interactions between Wake Forest, Bresky and the Hannitys. First, the rules governing NCAA recruitment are known for elasticity, and key points along the timeline of Patrick's journey to a redshirt, midyear addition to the tennis team are unclear. Both Wake Forest and the Hannity family, through attorney Harder, insist that nothing untoward occurred. But NCAA regulations experts have told Salon that this particular chain of events appears unusual, and that the school may have violated the rules governing early contact with a recruit. (Those rules, to be fair, are often ignored.) Compliance experts both inside and outside college athletic programs describe the timeline as "weird" and "suspicious," and say that even setting aside questions of legality, the ethics are not flattering.
"NCAA rules are not airtight. There are back doors," a legal expert in NCAA regulations told Salon, on the condition of anonymity. "It's sometimes difficult to see the differences between unlawful transactions and a wealthy helicopter parent doing all they can for their kid."
The lawyer added: "What I don't get is why. Why go to these lengths if the kid is qualified? Why this level of personal involvement? There may be an explanation, but it's just bizarre."
Volante noted that in addition to showing favoritism to schools and sports based on revenue, NCAA enforcement decisions sometimes display racial bias.
"If these benefits were flowing to Black athletes, or to a predominantly Black sport, the NCAA would be there within a flash," Volante said. "A predominantly white sport, a low-profile sport like tennis, often won't get the same scrutiny."
One NCAA compliance official at an Atlantic Coast Conference school — that is, a school in Wake Forest's conference — told Salon it was "not possible" that a random player with Patrick Hannity's relatively modest statistics could land a spot on a top-tier team without the backing of family money or influence. Many schools will happily pay tens of thousands of dollars to keep an athlete on the bench for four years "if it's worth that million-dollar donation" coming at some point down the road, the official said.
Asked whether he knew of other parents and coaches who had engaged in living arrangements similar to those of the Hannitys, Parr and Bresky, the official said: "No, I've never heard of that."
Wake Forest requires students to live in campus housing for three years, unless they live with a parent or guardian in the area. Harder, the family attorney, would not say whether Patrick Hannity, now a senior, has met that requirement, and would not say whether Patrick has lived in the Winston-Salem house with a parent, or whether Cory Parr was acting as his guardian.
Parr still lives at that address today, according to North Carolina voter records, and used it to register a company called Charity Raffles LLC in November 2016, a few weeks before Patrick signed with Wake. That company is the parent of another Parr entity called Give2Gain, which holds raffles and auctions for sports-related experiences on behalf of charities.
A university spokesperson told Salon in an email that the NCAA had not blocked the arrangement, adding that the Hannitys had been compensating the "volunteer" coach.
"Parr's relationship with the Hannitys was known to Wake Forest and disclosed to the NCAA and the NCAA did not preclude Parr from being a volunteer coach while receiving compensation from the Hannitys," the spokesperson said, adding that Wake Forest. "has no involvement with Parr's housing arrangement." Asked whether the NCAA had offered an opinion on whether their relationship was appropriate, the spokesperson repeated that the governing body had not prevented Parr from coaching.
Parr came out of retirement to play a doubles match with Patrick in June 2017. They lost in straight sets, 6-2, 6-2. He now coaches at a boarding school in the Winston-Salem area, where he started last October.
The unconventional narrative outlined above at some point drew the attention of a federal prosecutor.
Bresky and Hannity, through their representatives, both said that they were not aware of any such investigation. Salon has reviewed documents and spoken with a person familiar with the case, making clear that one did indeed arise. That investigation, according to those sources, originated in the federal prosecutor's office in the Eastern District of New York — that is, on Long Island, where Sean Hannity lives, and where Cory Parr lived before he moved to Winston-Salem — and focused on Tony Bresky's improbable home purchase next door to Hannity's, and along with that the facts and events of Bresky's relationship with the Hannitys around the time of Patrick's recruitment.
The grand jury subpoenaed Bresky's financial records, but it is not clear whether the coach was himself subpoenaed or whether the documents were obtained directly from his bank. The prosecutors closed the investigation sometime around the summer of 2020 without finding evidence of criminality.
A Wake Forest spokesperson said that neither Bresky nor the university was aware of the investigation, and provided a statement about the home purchase. "Coach Bresky's housing choice is independent of Wake Forest," the spokesperson wrote. "However, the Hannitys did not provide any funding towards the purchase of Bresky's home."
Harder said this: "Mr. Hannity (including his family and businesses) had nothing to do with Tony Bresky buying an adjacent property, or any financing related to it. Mr. Hannity did not even know that Mr. Bresky was buying the neighboring property until long after the purchase had been completed. The house happened to come on the market after Mr. Hannity had bought his, and the Breskys happened to learn about it, and buy it (with zero assistance from Mr. Hannity) in or around December 2016."
Those two houses are next door to each other on a cul-de-sac, almost three miles from the Wake Forest tennis center.
The decision to open an inquiry also came in the context of news reporting about Sean Hannity's real estate transaction history, which not publicly known at the time of Bresky's purchase. In 2018, the Fox News star drew public scrutiny after The Guardian revealed that he owned more than 20 shell companies which had cumulatively spent at least $90 million on nearly 900 homes in seven different states over the previous decade, including apartment complexes in low-income neighborhoods. The shell companies all had variations of the name of the entity Hannity used to purchase the Winston-Salem house, a combination of his kids' initials.
Hannity denied any wrongdoing in that case: "The fact is, these are investments that I do not individually select, control, or know the details about; except that obviously I believe in putting my money to work in communities that otherwise struggle to receive such support."
In April 2020, two years after The Guardian's report, Morgan Dill, a current teammate of Patrick Hannity at Wake Forest, Morgan Dill, took an internship at an Atlanta-based company called Henssler Financial, which is the firm Hannity used to register those shell companies.
It's impossible to understand these unusual decisions and the broader impact of their example without discussing Patrick Hannity's tennis career.
According to both Wake Forest and Harder, who deferred to the school on the issue, Tony Bresky offered Patrick a walk-on spot on the tennis team, and Patrick verbally committed to the school in August 2015, around the beginning of his junior year in high school. Five NCAA compliance experts told Salon that appears to be a violation of recruitment rules, which bar tennis coaches from contacting players before Sept. 1 of their junior year — meaning that Bresky apparently offered Patrick a spot before he was even supposed to send him recruiting materials. If Patrick called the coach, however, rather than the other way around, then no rules were broken. Wake Forest would not say who initiated the contact.
According to the NCAA, a male high school tennis player has a 1.6% chance of landing a spot on a Division I team. There are 264 Division I tennis teams, and Wake Forest is very near the top of the top — the tennis equivalent of Duke in basketball or Alabama in football. It is hard to overstate how good their starting recruits have been: During Bresky's tenure, the Deacons have consistently ranked in the top 10 and won the national championship twice, in 2018 and 2019. Patrick Hannity was on both those teams, but did not play in matches that counted towards the championship.
Wake Forest explained to Salon that every team needs solid walk-on players to give their starters the best practice opponents they can get, and that Patrick qualified on his merits.
"The combination of Patrick's academic and athletic credentials qualified him for formal admission at that time," a spokesperson said in an email. "In January 2017, he enrolled at Wake Forest with a 4.2 high school GPA. Patrick was a member of the National Honor Society, he was a four-star tennis recruit, and he was one of the top-10 recruits from the state of New York."
According to the Tennis Recruiting Network (TRN), an authoritative source on youth tennis, that's all correct but may be slightly misleading. The "four-star" designation means that a player was ranked somewhere between the 75th and 200th best prospect at a given grade level. Wake Forest's own signing announcement ranked Patrick 157th nationally in 2016, his junior year. By the next year, after Patrick had left public school for an online program in order to focus on tennis and graduate a semester early, his ranking had fallen to 197. (His younger sister, who plays at the University of Michigan, was a five-star recruit.)
Salon obtained research for the Intercollegiate Tennis Association's rankings of the 10 best college men's tennis teams for 2016 and 2017, which shows that those teams' U.S. recruits had a median national ranking of 33. TRN also assigns a Ratings Power Index to tennis prospects: While the median rank for the aforementioned recruits was 50, Patrick Hannity was ranked 292 in 2016, and 329 in 2017.
It is similarly difficult to get concrete information about when Sean Hannity first flew someone affiliated with Wake Forest or its men's tennis team on his jet. Neither the university nor Harder would say for sure. Harder said by email that to the best of Hannity's recollection, "nobody from the University flew in the plane until his son was enrolled, and on the tennis team. If you have evidence to the contrary, please share it, and I will discuss with my client."
Harder also claimed that Wake had reimbursed Hannity for travel on his private plane, but the school would not answer direct questions on that point. A university spokesperson replied by email: "Patrick committed to Wake Forest prior to Hannity's purchase of the plane. The University's use of aircraft and the University's handling of transportation of its student athletes is a private matter."
Experts say that the NCAA frowns on "inducements," although those are ambiguously defined. "The NCAA and its members do not want athletes to receive extra benefits or inducements for choosing a particular school," Volante, the sports and entertainment lawyer, told Salon. "Despite this, certain schools have nicer facilities, higher profile coaches, etc., that naturally induce athletes to pick one school over another. This is OK since those are things provided directly to the athlete by the school.
"What the NCAA polices against is boosters or third parties offering inducements to athletes that would affect the recruiting process," Volante continued. "If a donor to a school were to make certain perks and amenities available to a school or individual program for the purpose of inducing athletes to pick that school over another, then it could cross the line into a major infraction by the institution. A series of major infractions would reach the threshold of lack of institutional control, the most serious scenario within NCAA compliance and infractions."
In February 2018, following Wake Forest's ITA indoor championship victory, Bresky tweeted a photo of the students, including Patrick, gathered in front of Hannity's plane. "Time to go home, bringing my girls a little present," the coach wrote.
Research obtained by Salon shows that in 2019, seven of the top 10 college tennis teams strictly took commercial flights while traveling to or from out-of-town matches and tournaments. One other school chartered a private plane occasionally. And then there was Wake Forest: Within the space of two years, Hannity's jet appeared more than a dozen times at locations where the Demon Deacons were playing, the research showed. Although Hannity at some point restricted public access to his plane's flight data, Salon has obtained information showing that the plane made seven trips to or from the Winston-Salem area between Feb. 24 and May 21, 2019. Instagram photos posted by one of Patrick's teammates show the team using the plane at other times.
NCAA rules do not expressly prohibit someone from donating the use of a private jet for team travel, but that act would make that person a major donor, or "booster." If the school reimbursed Hannity for the flights, as his attorney claims, however, that would likely not be considered a donation. It is unclear whether Hannity registered as a Wake Forest booster, and because neither Harder nor Wake Forest would say whether the Fox host had charged fair market value for the flights, it is also unclear who benefited, in financial terms, from the team's use of Hannity's jet — Hannity or the school.
Among other restrictions, the NCAA bars boosters from engaging in recruiting conversations on behalf of a given school. It is not clear whether Sean Hannity has ever participated in such conversations, but he seems to have been particularly engaged with Wake Forest men's tennis players, well before his son joined the team.
When Patrick was a high school player, Hannity was close not only with former Deacon Cory Parr, but also Jay Harris, who coached Patrick and ran a training facility that had a recruiting relationship with Wake Forest. According to a profile in the Mansfield News Journal, Harris "helped the younger Hannity through the recruiting process," which as far as Salon has found chiefly if not exclusively involved Wake Forest. (The Journal also reported in 2014 that Hannity once arranged to have a private jet on the tarmac for Harris, so that "Harris could mentor his academy-attendee son at a high-level tournament.")
The elder Hannity is also close with former Wimbledon junior singles champion Noah Rubin, who trained at both John McEnroe Tennis Academy and Jay Harris' Sportime, where Patrick Hannity also trained. After winning the junior title at Wimbledon in 2014, Rubin wanted to turn professional, but instead attended Wake Forest on a scholarship that allowed him to participate part-time in professional events, which he called "a difficult decision." He dominated college tennis for a year and then left school to become a full-time pro, and is still friends with Hannity.
Hannity's professional connections, including at Fox News, also appear to include Wake Forest. He gave Noah Rubin's sister Jessie a college internship at his show before Rubin accepted the Wake scholarship. Rubin's friend Sam Bloom, a three-time Wake Forest men's tennis captain, went to work for Fox News as a producer upon his graduation in June 2016, and later married Hannity's production assistant, Christen Limbaugh — Rush Limbaugh's niece. These interactions all preceded Patrick Hannity's enrollment at Wake Forest.
As mentioned above, last April Patrick's current Wake Forest teammate, Morgan Dill, took an internship at Atlanta-based Henssler Financial, where, as The Guardian first reported in 2018, Hannity registered dozens of "SPMK" shell companies that he has used to purchase at least $90 million worth of real estate.
According to The New York Times college mobility tracker, 22% of all Wake Forest students come from families in the top 1% of the nation in terms of wealth, ranking it fifth on the Times list of 65 elite colleges. Almost 3% of all Deacons come from the top 0.1% wealthiest families in the country.
Serious tennis, of course, is expensive. But some of Patrick Hannity's wealthy teammates also appear to fall far well short of top-tier Division I prowess — more dramatically than he does, in fact. For instance, Charles Parry and his younger brother Jack — who made the Wake Forest team in different years — are the children of John Parry, a yacht broker in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, who also owns Gold Coffee, one of the largest private producers in the United States. Charles was a two-star recruit — in other words, two full levels below Patrick Hannity — while Jack's team profile is limited to three high school varsity letters and a title in a boys' tennis club tournament in Jupiter, Florida. Jack is unrated by Universal Tennis Ratings and ranked 878 in his national recruiting class.
The team's profile page for 2018 walk-on redshirt Tayte Dupree mentions no tennis accomplishments beyond his presence on a Virginia private school state championship team. He was ranked 602 in his recruiting class. His father, David Dupree, founder of the Halifax Group, a Washington, D.C.-area private equity investment firm, is a part owner of the Washington Nationals baseball team and received the 2016 Wake Forest Distinguished Alumni Award. Dupree and his wife are among five couples who gave $1 million each to kick off Wake Forest's matching gift program in 2018.
From 2014 to 2017, the operating budget for the Wake Forest men's tennis team more than doubled, going from $715,000 to more than $1.8 million. It remained at that level in 2018.
That dramatic budget increase tracks with a modest but noticeable increase in roster size. In 2014, the team had 13 players, a number that grew to 15 in 2018 and 17 the next year. The current 2020-2021 team boasts 18 players, significantly larger than the average roster size in men's college tennis, which the USTA reports is 8 to 12 members. Among the top-10 NCAA teams in 2019, only Wake Forest had more than 13 players; top-ranked Ohio State had 10 players on the roster, while second-ranked Texas had nine.
In a 2019 podcast interview, Wake Forest coach Tony Bresky suggested that he now had access to as much funding as he needed to recruit the best young talent. He said that the only thing he needed more of was time to travel and watch more players.
"We've been – we've become – very fortunate at Wake Forest," Bresky said. "We have some very gracious donors, and our administration has been so supportive of our program. ... For us, it's not a financial issue."
Sean Hannity is himself a member of Wake Forest's parent's athletic council, and has discussed his son and the team on the air. On May 23, 2018, after the school won its first NCAA championship, Hannity told Fox News primetime colleague Laura Ingraham, "I know all the kids on the team. They are amazing kids, they have an amazing coach — Tony Bresky — and you know [Patrick] is a freshman and it is probably the greatest experience so far in his life."
After that 2018 national championship, Hannity — who was often described as former President Trump's informal chief of staff — played a key role in scoring the team a White House visit. While NCAA champions frequently receive such honors, the Trump administration was more finicky. The New York Times reported that if not for Hannity, the tennis team would seem "an unlikely choice for a special visit hosted by a president whose administration has planned a crackdown on foreign students who overstay their visas as part of a broader drive to tighten immigration." All six of the leading singles players on that Wake Forest team had been recruited from other countries, including Croatia, Cyprus, Tunisia and Uzbekistan.
School spokesperson Dan Wallace confirmed that impression, telling the Times that Hannity "helped instigate the talks" that led to the visit. "That was the driving force," Wallace said.
At the ceremony, Trump, without prompting, called out his ally's son by name among the Wake Forest players. "Patrick is back there," the president said. Patrick Hannity had not played a match for the team for months.
In 2019, the "Varsity Blues" college admissions bribery scandal cast a pall over athletics programs at some of the country's most well-known schools. In response, Hannity published an adapted monologue on the Fox News website entitled, "College admissions scandal shows the new faces of greed, corruption and selfishness," in which the conservative provocateur bashed the wealthy and well-connected parents who had paid money to game college acceptances for their children, often through fraudulent acceptances to low-profile sports teams.
These parents, Hannity argued, were not acting primarily for the benefit of their children, but for themselves.
Dozens of wealthy families, business executives and yes, Hollywood celebrities, were caught rigging the system, paying huge crimes, fixing even SAT and ACT scores, so their little children, their precious kids could gain admission into some of America's top universities.
Why? I guess for status, bragging rights, so they could tell their friends that their privileged children got into the best schools, even though in reality, their children weren't good enough academically or weren't good enough athletically. To do so, they stomped on the futures of other people.
Hannity also leaned on his own experience as a tennis dad.
This is a zero-sum game. There's only so many spots in each school. For children who are probably not as financially well-off, or kids who had to work for everything, kids who put in the time academically or athletically.
We're talking about thousands and thousands of hours studying and training and actually earning their grades or position in their sport. Kids who spent all this time on and off the field to better themselves and enrich the school with their incredible athletic ability. Kids who played sports competitively. Most kids nowadays focus on one sport since about the time they are seven years old. I know because I've lived through it.
Hannity did not mention the indictment of Wake Forest's women's volleyball coach, Bill Ferguson. (The university itself was specifically targeted in a letter from Trump's Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos.) Federal prosecutors alleged that Ferguson, who joined Wake the same month Hannity purchased his Winston-Salem mansion, had illegally accepted $100,000 from a foundation to help a wait-listed student gain admission by pretending the student was a premier volleyball recruit.
After a preliminary hearing, Ferguson's attorney suggested that the player had not been placed on the team unfairly: "Two weeks ago, the U.S. attorney told you about a litany of abuses: phony test scores, unqualified students, falsified athletic profiles. Well I can't speak to what happened at any other school, but not at Wake Forest University. No one, no one was admitted to Wake Forest who didn't earn it as a student and as an athlete," he said.
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