Cal-Berkeley Athletics Update

It’s hard to imagine Berkeley’s public presence degrading below the state our sexual harassment episodes have brought us to, but we have been doing a job on ourselves in intercollegiate athletics as well.  Today’s news has a twofer, a sexual assault accusation with a sports angle. Sigh.

The football and men’s basketball teams’ academic performance has apparently turned around and we are  no longer at the bottom of the NCAA; both teams also did creditably on the field this year. Good.  Unfortunately, we are learning that some really ugly stuff is festering in both programs, never mind that the campus subsidy of this operation is back up to twice the $5m per year a prior chancellor very firmly instructed them to live within.  In football, you may remember the death in practice of Ted Agu in 2014, which resulted from an inhumane, abusive training style practiced by strength and conditioning coach Damon Harrington, aggravated by failure to take care of him when he collapsed, and pervasive, insistent lying in the university’s subsequent engagement with the police and the legal system.

Last week, the other shoe dropped: we’re going to pay $4.75 million to Agu’s family, not counting all our lawyers’ fees and presumably theirs. (Cal is currently trying to figure out how to deal with a $175m per year structural deficit, and there will be blood on the floor when that’s over.)  Harrington, it turns out, is an interesting fellow, apparently a combination of heartless thug, bully, and arrogant martinet.  He likes collective punishment, and when freshman Fabiano Hale missed a practice in 2013, he assigned extra drills to the whole training group and suggested they take out their anger on Hale.  J.D. Hinnant, overflowing with the team spirit and character big-time football is famous for, explained Hale’s shortcomings to him by beating him unconscious, sending him to the hospital with a major concussion and a laceration requiring stitches. Outside of a locker room, this would be a felony, but the DA agrees it’s just kids having fun and secret team discipline is fine.

My colleague Brian Barsky reports* today:

I conducted a lengthy personal interview with a Cal Bears football player who was present for both incidents….

He described how Coach Damon Harrington instigates the players to “police themselves” and that is the genesis of  J.D. Hinnant’s assault on Fabiano Hale on Friday Nov. 1, 2013.  He explained that this is routine and is part of the standard approach where the whole team is “punished” for the actions of a single team member, even if the other team members have nothing to do with the issue.  He described the frequent “punishments,” such as having to repeatedly roll over and over on one’s stomach which sometimes led to vomiting.

He explained that the team has over a hundred members, many of whom never play in the actual games [the average game time of a Cal football player is  a little over an hour per season (arithmetic corrected by KennnethJ 23/IV, thanks) –m.o’h].  This was the case for both Hinnant (the attacker) and Hale (the victim).  This practice was held the day before the Saturday Nov. 2, 2013 game against the University of Arizona Wildcats.  Rather than suspending the attacker from the team, Head Coach Sonny Dykes “rewarded” Hinnant by having him dress for play for this game.

He opined that the victim’s family did not press charges in order to enable Hale to remain a member of the football team and retain his football scholarship, which could be suspended at the whim of Coach Dykes.

So we have a training coach whose road to winning has killed one player and incited another to injure a teammate within an inch of his life, teaches lynchmob justice, and cost us five million dollars and no end of public shame. So far. He is still on the payroll and apparently head coach Dykes, the athletic director Mike Williams, and our chancellor are all just fine with Harrington. Why not?–we went over .500 this year (counting three teams we paid to roll over for us, but still…) and went to a bowl game, which means multi-thousand-dollar bonuses for Dykes.

That’s not all; keep in mind that the business of big-time college sports is business (at Cal, it even has it’s own web site with a .com suffix), and today we closed a yuuuge deal with Under Armour, in fact the whole campus is going to get in bed with them.  And really, if a great public research university can’t sell sweatshirts, what’s the good of it?

OK, men’s basketball, where we got to dip a toe into March Madness, woo hoo. Here the scandal is just an outbreak of smirking hypocrisy.  Our athletics boosters get all antsy and moral when confronted with the reality of intercollegiate sports at the top level, and always point out that athletic scholarships are “one of the few ways poor kids, especially minority kids, can get a college education”.  That’s always the phrase, “get a college education.”

Well, the magic of sports, and the discipline and training it provides, apparently enables these kids to get that college education in one year, even being in practices and meetings for hundreds of hours: our star freshman [sic] Jaylen Brown is headed out the door to the NBA.  Another freshman star, Ivan Rabb, might be back next year; guess he didn’t spend enough time in the weight room to pass all 32 courses like Brown. There’s not a word in any of the coverage of this “one and done” stuff that isn’t completely positive.

*[update, 23/IV] Brian provides the following clarification: “Both the attacker and victim were freshmen at the time and were “redshirted” meaning that the were not to play during that year.  This practice was held early Friday morning Nov. 1, 2013 and it was exclusively for members of the team who would not be playing in the game the next day (Saturday Nov. 2, 2013) against the University of Arizona Wildcats.  [Hinnant] was rewarded for doing what the coach wanted by being allowed to dress for the Saturday Nov. 2, 2013 game even though he would definitely not be playing in it.”

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Michael O’Hare

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