In late spring, big-time sports at Berkeley hit bottom on several dimensions, but things may be turning around. In the last few anni horribili,  the Intercollegiate Athletics program saddled the campus with about $400m in debt to rebuild the stadium and construct an accessory building that is about a third conditioning space for athletes, a third party venue for boosters and possibly players, and a third coaching offices.  A scheme to play the spread between tax-exempt bond interest rates and market returns on endowment, plus selling premium seats on long contracts (the ESP program), to retire this debt is in some trouble (ESP sales are steadily declining year by year).  At the same time, we were humiliated by the worst graduation rates in the country (football) and in the conference (men’s basketball) along with on-field performance in those money sports (1-11 in FB, 7th in the conference in MBB) that, let us say, does not sell tickets or open donor wallets.

We sent our athletic director packing (she wound up at Penn State…the world is a strange place in many ways) and the football team is no longer an embarrassment, 4-1 so far even though we did not beat the point spread in last week’s squeaker. More interesting, a task force stood up by the chancellor last winter has come out with a report, focused on “the academic performance of student athletes and the overall quality of their campus experience”,  that he has pretty much accepted.  It has a lot of good stuff in it and deserves a careful read.

It’s worth noting, indeed essential: almost nothing meaningful can be said about “student athletes”, at least at Cal. The graduation rate problem afflicts eight out of 29 teams: FB, MBB, softball, men’s water polo, men’s soccer; and to a lesser degree, women’s track and field, WBB, and baseball; the others have admirable academic records.  From a business perspective, the program has to be thought of as two cash cows (FB and MBB, sports people will pay to watch and are reported to earn almost $13m between them), and all the rest, that lose $20m (IA gets a campus subsidy of about $7.5m).  The linked P/L doesn’t completely smell right to me, for example the “Direct Facilities Cost” cannot be the real operating cost of the stadium and basketball arena, and a lot of administrative and medical money that really belongs to the 100+ football squad seems to be loaded into the Non-Program-Specific overhead  category , but it will do for the nonce. Note, incidentally, that debt service on the stadium/performance center boondoggle more than wipes out the FB/MBB ‘profit’.

In principle, we could keep the two money teams plus about 140 players on women’s teams (to meet federal Title IX constraints) and actually make money.  But the politics of closing down teams is very dicey; when the last chancellor tried it, the sky fell on him, and the annual IA subsidy remains above the target everyone has been promising for years.

The task force has a lot of interesting findings about the challenges athletes on all teams, but especially the money sports, face to keep their scholarships and pass courses. Practice times interfere with labs, travel to meets conflicts with classes, and so a lot of majors (particularly “capped” majors with GPA requirements) are closed to them. Furthermore, many of these sports take a lot of time from homework or study no matter when  scheduled, and one of the requirements of being in shape is to get a lot of sleep. It is simply wrong to say that an athletic scholarship allows these kids “to get a Berkeley education”: in many sports, even those who graduate are getting that in name only.

A lot of these athletes feel disrespected and excluded from college life, according to surveys, and that’s just one more abuse the NCAA system subjects money sports players to. One reason for this is that they are herded together in dorms with other athletes, at least in their first two years, and the task force suggests that this should stop.  Another is that, in our desperation for stars who will pay our sports bills, athletes are regularly admitted with credentials (test scores, GPA) far below the cutoff for all other students.  Personally, I see no problem fudging a standard academic cutoff for people, like artists and, yes, athletes, who bring skills and resources not measured in grades and test-taking.  But a lot of these admits, it turns out, are far beyond a fudge or a reasonable adjustment: in the end, Cal students have to pass Cal courses and tutoring and remedial support can only overcome so much native ability and preparation deficit.

Still another, particularly poignant as regards the black athletes who predominate in the money sports, is  the quintuple whammy: (A) Black kids go, in large part, to neglected and underfunded K-12 schools, full of students with sketchy family and community support. (B) We are forbidden to admit by affirmative action, so that impulse converges on sports.  (C) The academically prepared black kids, athletes or not, are such a small percentage of all black high school seniors that private schools mostly buy them away from us with scholarships. (D) Berkeley is not just any college, but a selective, academically demanding one; we have some ditzes, stoners, and not-all-that-smart coasters, but on the whole, Berkeley courses are hard and our students academically outstanding. (E) Less than 4% of undergraduates are black, less than half the state’s population percentage and way below the percentage, given the segregation of our cities, of most of their home communities. The school’s climate has such a toxic reputation among blacks that 60% of those admitted don’t matriculate.  In FBS schools, the ones whose teams we see on TV, 57% of MBB and 43% of FB players are black; if that applies at Cal (and the team pictures don’t contradict it), it means those two sports comprise almost one in five of the 350 black male undergraduates.

What the task force report doesn’t really engage are the constraints of operating a competitive FBS program in an R1 university.  It is not enough for kids to have fun playing sports and getting good at them; the money (TV eyeballs and seat sales) is in winning and the industry is both professional and ruthless.  Note the headline on this interesting story, in which there is not one word about any good UCLA’s football might be doing for the rest of the university.  In our conference we now have Oregon, for whom Phil Knight will spend whatever championships cost, two very rich private schools, and a UCLA that has set its cap for a championship.  Graduation rates can be fixed in many ways, of which admitting students who can actually do the work is only one, and one that can seriously compromise your W/L. The power of big-money sports to corrupt not only universities but a whole city government, including the police department, should not be underestimated.

I wish the chancellor and his project well, but I do not believe this circle can be squared.  FB and MBB aside, there’s no reason athletes can’t get a real Berkeley education (not just graduate) and excel on the field.  But those are the $port$ that wag the dog and feed it, and the competitive environment will not let us put up numbers like Stanford’s.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

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Michael O'Hare is a Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.