Update on California athletics

No particular news today, but I happened to see Blue Chips on TV this week and it motivated some reflections.

The Intercollegiate Athletics Program at Berkeley is probably having an office party around now for its 220 full-time staff, and I hope they are able to gin up some sort of cheer, because it’s been a perfect storm for them lately.  The football repeated-concussion cloud continues to get larger and darker nationally; Berkeley closed down five I-A teams, including baseball, a big alumni favorite; and the football team pretty much crumbled.  I know winning big-time athletics is absolutely essential to the prestige, indeed the viability, of a great university [just look at MIT and the University of Chicago], and I have been looking very carefully to see if the enthusiasm and smarts of my students in class, and our ability to attract top-level faculty (my unit has two searches under way), erode underfoot.  So far everything seems just fine, which is impossible in theory, but maybe that  just proves how deep and subtle the damage is.  Or that our problems on the playing field and the ticket office have already damaged my own perspicacity, as it gradually stupefies the whole faculty.  That’s probably it.

The  cash cows, men’s basketball and football, are in some trouble; in football, we had a losing season and no bowl game, in basketball (no conference games yet) we’re in the bottom third of the PAC-10. I swear, I can feel my neurons burning out just as I contemplate this; surely one fewer published paper next year.  The great papers my students wrote this fall must be because they don’t understand how much their degrees have been devalued.  Last week I went to a student production of Twelfth Night in a multi-purpose room, lit with a few clip-on hardware store lamps on chairs, using very imaginative modern-dress costumes and props one person could carry in one trip.  Amateur theater, especially comedy, is always risky, but this show was really wonderful.  It’s really a shame that a splendid arts program, living on air and talent, counts for nothing if the football team doesn’t shine, but that’s the way it is, and that’s why IA will [corrected 18/XII] get $12-13m a year now, and  $5m a year after 2014, in discretionary subsidies, while theater, dance, art and music will have to beg for scraps.

Possibly more troubling, football continues to get us the wrong kind of press, most recently for a whitewashed cheating incident that didn’t even win the game.  A lot of people don’t understand how football builds character, and this episode should clarify it:  character for players means you follow orders to cheat if they come from someone in authority, and might help you win a ball game and line the coaches’ pockets with incentive money.  For leaders, it means you deny everything until national ridicule and a videotape absolutely force your hand; if you have to, you make a junior gofer fall on his  butter knife (one-game suspension) and have done with it.

The amount of money pressing on college sports teams from gamblers, boosters, equipment makers, and TV networks is absolutely enormous, and the pressure to cheat in various ways is proportional.  This always happens when government or a government-like thing (the NCAA) steps in between people each of whom has something the other wants and are gripped by the desire to make a deal (in this case, athletes and these semi-pro subsidiaries of big non-profits with relatively weak managerial oversight).  USC, which cheated its way to glory under Pete Carroll [who has taken his ethics to Seattle's pro team], now thinks it needs a former FBI director and a staff of nine to police (not coach, not administer: police) its program. Character is accumulating at USC so fast it’s been reported dribbling out the door and clogging storm drains on the 110 service road.

There’s a big pocketbook issue looming for us as well.  The university (not, legally, just Berkeley) has gone into hock for about a half-billion bucks to build a party venue for boosters, coaching office center, and (about a third) conditioning space for athletes, plus renovations for a stadium that straddles the fault of our most imminent earthquake, generally figured at about 1 in 3 to pop in the next thirty years.  It is indeed a beautiful stadium, but it also provides no space for tailgating and clogs up a whole city with the challenge of getting sixty-odd thousand people in and out of it seven times a year.  Every minute of every other day, it takes up a lot of space that is very valuable on an urban, dense, pedestrian campus.

The plan to pay off the bonds is for IA, by some magic not completely clear to many of us, to make about $40m a year more than it does now, despite two years playing in a baseball park with only about  45,000 seats. Some amount has been given up front by donors, and some of the seat licenses on which very high hopes were pinned have been sold for next year, but the latter program had to be rescaled to an annual pledge structure when sales were disappointing.  It is almost impossible to get real financial information out of IA, but the whole idea that this money-losing enterprise will suddenly start throwing off 30% profits, and keep doing so for decades, is looking ever more flaky in view of this year’s team performance and the press it’s getting.  Of course the regents might spread the bond payments Cal isn’t able to make across all ten campuses when the scheme hits the fan.  Right. On the other hand, everyone involved in this decision will be retired or dead when it comes unglued and Cal has to start renting its lab buildings to Pfizer and replaces the last professor with a cheap adjunct, so what’s the real problem here?  It’s just California culture, folks; Jarvis and Gann have been dead for years.

Comments

  1. Warren Terra says

    I was visiting family in Seattle over Thanksgiving, and the situation at the University Of Washington is, if anything, worse. They're also planning to build a ruinously expensive new stadium, also to be financed by University-backed loans that we are blithely assured will be paid for by tens of millions in extra revenue every year from the stadium, in contrast to their own auditors' report; they also are facing swingeing state budget cuts, which we may presume will bite all the more deeply into education and other nonessentials so that Football may prosper; and (here's the difference) they played a College Football game on a Thursday this year. The enormous stadium parking lots are normally used for student and staff parking during the week. About two-thirds of the students commute, a large portion of them by car, with carpools subsidized; I have no idea about the staff. To make the (late evening) game and its essential Tailgating possible, the lots were closed to University parking for the entire day; classes were however scheduled as normal. It was, in all, a perfect example of the University screwing it's students, staff, and teachers in service of the University's true purpose: televised football, played mostly by unpaid "students" most of whom could not otherwise have gained admission go the school, most of whom won't get a decent education (not even if they want to, given the extraordinary demands of their unpaid profession), and almost none of whom will progress to paid Professional Football.

    But it's the postscript that's the telling bit: the outgoing President of the University of Washington, the fellow under whose leadership this Thursday game and its betrayal of the University's academic and research mission was organized, is one Mark Emmert, the new head of the NCAA. At least he was rewarded for recognizing the true purpose of the University.

  2. John W says

    Sionce the Chancellor's special committee on IA reported earlier this year that the financial cobweb of IA could not be easily understood except by an expert that they should hire, I suspect that the Chancellor's/DIA's motives in closing down five sports was done more to anger the donors, just to justify the continued expeditures on IA rather than to save money. The IA budget could be trimmed sufficiently without cutting any sports, if we could just see it. All the academic departments and research units on campus were ordered to cut their budgets and given only a couple of months to do it, and they did without the option of a 4-year grace period.

    Good thing you talk about Bowl Games with your tongue in check. If Cal ever gets back to being just an average team, then it will again qualify for a bowl game like half of the Div I teams. These bowl games are meaningless in terms of sports, but essential for keeping the money flowing (chiefly from TV) to NCAA, IA programs and the coaches and directors of sports. It is a farce bought into by the generally no-caring sports fans. Who cares if Cal gets into some trivial bowl game?

  3. Warren Terra says

    Oh, one other thing I forgot to mention in my comment on the University Of Washington's Football Follies: while they're proposing to spend a half-billion on a new Football Stadium, an extension of the city's new light rail is already funded and underway: currently the line goes from the airport to downtown, stopping at the almost brand new NFL stadium (in use for eight football games a year, none of them on Saturday) but it will soon go to the University. I believe the stop at the University may even be near the current stadium. If they truly need a fancy new Football stadium, one is already being linked up to them, and it's available.

  4. J. Michael Neal says

    Why don’t they use Qwest Field? Wouldn’t it be easier all the way around?

    If you do that, there isn't another bushel of luxury boxes to sell.

  5. KLG says

    Anyone else get the feeling that we are so f*cked? And I say this as a product of an SEC Football Factory, albeit with a sojourn at a major medical school in the Mid-Atlantic. Now, back to Chris Hedges' latest dead-on polemic…

  6. Ken D. says

    I have an idea. Lets get the Tea Party crowd interested in the fact that the huge-money, substantively professional college football and basketball industries are mostly government-owned, and therefore socialistic. They are competing with the pros, who are only waist deep in various government subsidies. This cannot be tolerated!

  7. Larry Roberts says

    "Possibly more troubling, football continues to get us the wrong kind of press, most recently for a whitewashed cheating incident that didn’t even win the game."

    So… cheating incidents that win games might be OK?

    Just win, baby. Al Davis.

    Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing. Red Sanders, Vince Lombardi.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winning_isn%27t_ever

  8. Bernard Yomtov says

    the huge-money, substantively professional college football and basketball industries are mostly government-owned, and therefore socialistic.

    In fact, I think a big part of the problem is simply that, to the very large extent that the athletics-dominated universities are state schools, their attitude reflects that of the citizenry, who are quite happy to see their taxes go to support these programs.

    Part of the problem is the deliberate obfuscation of athletic finances, but another part is simply public pressure. I agree with Michael on the issue of athletics, but am very pessimistic that anything can be done. I do wish more private universities would stop this irrational practice, especially the school I attended, Vanderbilt, the SEC's perennial football doormat, which keeps imagining it can be competitive in that conference.

  9. says

    Security via obscurity in action. Job security, that is. Many of the people who support college athletics in their current for have no idea how much it's costing them.

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