Athletics at Berkeley update

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.




Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

5 thoughts on “Athletics at Berkeley update”

  1. The underlying reality, for UC-Berkeley and with variations a hundred or more other campuses, remains the same. Big time college sports has a screwy and idiosyncratic financial and legal structure that exists nowhere else in our society, or anybody else's. It is the product of a century-long slow motion blunder by American higher education. It is also very deeply entrenched financially and culturally. That creates a daunting moat between the wise diagnoses here and from other astute observers, and effective change. Declaring the athletes to be legally employees — which just might happen — would be a clumsy heart transplant with unpredictable consequences. The entire structure is wrapped tightly around the premise that the student-athletes are students pursing an extra-curricular activity (and most of them really are). Many of the non-athletic university administrations are already ambivalent about this sports thingie grafted onto their institutions, and really, really don't want to be the owners of explicitly professional sports franchises. How it all sorts out, beats me. Meanwhile, this Packer fan would like to put his cheesehead back on and thank you again for Aaron Rodgers, 2004 Second-team Academic All-Pac-10.

  2. An idea off the top of my head. The legitimate aim for the university is to encourage genuine student sport. This should be part-time and amateur, so will generally not be at the top level. Nothing stops universities from hosting professional sports teams at arm's length. In lieu of rent, the teams would offer coaching to student athletes. Nothing helps a college-level batsman/baseball player to grow more than facing a pro bowler/pitcher. The snag is that American pro sports teams have come to expect subsidies rather than to pay rent.

  3. And in some cases, an entire state legislature.

    And that's not all. Thousands of Sacto residents signed a petition to vote on the darned arena, but it got thrown out for technical reasons (which I gather happens a lot.)

    After watching things like this, I will never support any subsidy for pro sports or even the Olympics. No no no. It's all just too dirty, the owners are greedy, the antitrust exemptions too laughable, and I'm just *done.*

    1. Apparently the technical reason is that a purchaser who wanted to move the team (and was not a California resident) was behind the petition, and violated the Fair Political Practices Act. I'm not sure that I have a problem with denying a referendum on that basis.

      On the other hand, I don't think professional sports teams should get a nickel of public money. That includes the Olympics, by the way. Taxpayer subsidies for pro sports teams are a net economic loss by every responsible analysis I've seen. It appears to me the only way to make them a positive proposition is to cook the analysis.

      Just out of curiosity, is Los Angeles going to build the NFL a stadium?

      1. Well, iirc, there were some small errors with the petitions themselves, and there is also apparently precedent for courts being very picky. I think it was stuff like, some of the backers didn't all sign the notice in the paper (that 2 people probably saw and did not even notice… though those things can be important too), and also there may have been slightly different versions getting passed around (afaik, nothing very material).

        I can see why it would be important for backers to be extremely careful, and yet, none of those errors did voters any harm, I think. The funding you speak of — some guy who paid for signature gathering, which afaik is legal (though perhaps shouldn't be) — was I think well known. So bottom line, thousands of voters wanted a say on the massive public subsidy, and were denied. A failure of democracy. We should make these laws clear and easy to follow.

        And LA will not spend a PENNY on anything NFL if I have anything to say about it (which I probably won't unless some rich person funds a petition drive here too, and who in LA would have public spirit enough for that???), including any in-kind donation such as the use of highly valuable public land. No one wants it except the pols and a few fakegrass groups.

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