The guiding principle of the University of California’s Berkeley campus intercollegiate athletics program is something called comprehensive excellence, an idea or at least a slogan originating in a report from decades back (that I now can’t find) that has resonated through years and years of pointing with pride and viewing with alarm. The idea was that if we were going to have big-time sports, we should do it well both academically and on the field, with team rankings to match our campus status as the best public university in the world and scholar-athletes pulling A’s and B’s in hard courses while they pulled down touchdown passes.
There’s a social justice angle to college sports as well, and here our mantra is that scholarships for the best athletes allow [minority] kids to get a Berkeley education who wouldn’t otherwise have access to it; sometimes the word in brackets appears, sometimes it doesn’t. This principle asks for some definition of the phrase Berkeley education, because you can drive a largish truck between having a 40-hr non-intellectual manual labor job in a town that has a college (as long as you can do the work better than the next piece of blocking fodder and don’t hurt yourself) and getting a bachelor’s degree and learning what college graduates are assumed to know. For some reason, the impulse to return this favor by gifts from the few alumni athletes we qualified for zillion-dollar pro sports careers has been in the minimal-to-invisible range, as far as I can tell.
With the Penn State episode of entitled, arrogant, secretive, out-of-control athletics transitioning from Sandusky’s conviction to the incoming Freeh report and a tidal wave of civil litigation, and UVa’s recent demonstration of how not to do higher education governance, it’s worth a look-in at how comprehensive our excellence is. The news is pretty grim. On the field, though our women softballers were in the top four at the college world series, and our swimmers did great as usual (go Bears!) the money teams, football and men’s basketball, have not been playing money ball. In football, we wiped our feet on the usual three doormat teams, and then had a losing conference record and lost our bowl game to an unranked school. In basketball we were tied for second in the conference – not bad – but couldn’t run with the big dogs, blown out in the March Madness play-in game. I actually don’t care much about this as long as young people are having fun and being healthy playing sports, but losing is very bad for business, and this slice of college sports is a business with implications for everything else we do. [As always, I have to note that this discussion concerns sports played by a few hundred of our 20,000 students and watched by the others (or not)]. It is a losing business (about $10m per year) for us as for most schools, and the loss comes out of the labs, the classrooms, and student pockets.
What about academics, that features so highly in the mission statement? Well, you will find precisely none of the following on the very fancy website the athletic department fills with its super-slick puffery, so I regret to have to tell you that in the classroom our most prominent scholar-athletes are headed for detention. The football multi-year APR (Academic Progress Rate) is down from 970 in ’07-08 to 936 for 2010-11, second worst in the conference and flirting with the NCAA’s Mendoza line of 930 for postseason play. Men’s basketball is sliding as well, from 967 in 08-09 to 950 in 10-11. Other MBB measures are more gloomy, and last night a local TV station broadcast a really humiliating story: the federal MBB graduation rate (FGR) was 20% and graduation success rate (GSR) (which doesn’t count players who leave school – whether to hang out back home, through a pro draft, or to another school – while eligible) was 33%. Our African-American men’s BB rates are 0%/14%. [These multiple indicators, for people who want to get into the weeds, are explained here .] All in all, the “comprehensive excellence” justification trotted out to defend the millions of dollars of subsidies given to intercollegiate athletics seems to be taking on water fast these days.
Lurking in the background is a half-billion dollar debt for renovating the football stadium and building a coaching office palace cum party venue for boosters and athletes, plus (about a third) some conditioning facilities for some athletes, with which the regents and our administration have saddled the campus. Sadly, failing wretchedly on academic performance probably has no financial implications (unless we cross that Mendoza line), but not being at the top on the field is an arrow aimed at gifts, ticket and chotchke sales, not to mention TV revenues, all of which are promised to increase wonderfully to retire this debt (whose interest alone is almost a thousand full tuitions). Alarmingly, Maryland’s experience with a new stadium bringing in the bucks has been quite disappointing. Cloud no bigger than a man’s hand…