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.