Athletics at Cal

The perpetrators of last fall’s faculty senate resolution, that intercollegiate athletics at Berkeley be funded according to the rules and according to their appropriate role in a university, have an op-ed in the S.F. Chronicle.   The chancellor appears to have a concept of “shared governance” that differs from what many might think the phrase means.

This is bigger than Berkeley; a lot of universities are trapped in a positional arms race that is a gold mine for people who sell entertainment and chotchkes; for us, not so much.  In the case of public universities (and in the US system of tax exemptions for non-profit private enterprise, all universities are partly public) a lot of the money we spend on the 3% of our students engaged in this stuff is money taken from all citizens by force through taxes.  What the sports supporters like to call “private” support, gifts  to intercollegiate athletics , are (incomprehensibly) tax deductible, so more than a third of those donations from wealthy boosters came right out of your pocket.

On the other hand, consider the value it creates. At our current level of commitment, only 10% of teams from our conference, the PAC-10, can play in the Rose Bowl, but what if we really got with the football program and we all doubled our spending on it; no more stingy two-million dollar coaches’ salaries, for example, but real money.  Imagine how many teams could play in the Rose Bowl, and how many teams could all be in the top half of the conference, if all the chancellors and presidents stepped up!

If you think the answers are “one” and “five, same as now”,  you don’t understand something deep and essential about bigtime college sports, which is a pity, because you won’t be able to explain it to me in comments and I will continue to not get it.

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.

12 thoughts on “Athletics at Cal”

  1. Anybody not getting enough screedy goodness about corrupt university sports here from Mike should also be reading University Diaries:

    I realize I am sliding down the slope to codger-hood, but when I was an undergrad at Berkeley there seemed to me to be a better balance, coaches got good but not ridiculous salaries, Berkeley admitted athletes who were mostly at least plausible for a degree (my year we had a football team member with a biochem major, who I think was doing okay). Stanford beat us pretty regularly in the Big Game, Ohio State deigned to play us once in a while and creamed us. Would a kind of lost paradise look at how the U. went off track be fruitful? Tax deductibility of charitable giving is generally a subsidy to the preferences of the rich, and I tend to be pleased when things I like (opera, children's medical care, university academic scholarships) get money, am less so when it is things which I think are over-funded already (college sports conspicuously, Westboro Baptist Church). Making 'Dave Schutz likes it' a condition for charitable donation deductibility is probably not okay, though.

  2. Michael,

    I was born and raised in Alabama, left when I was 19, and have been back ever since for weddings and funerals. Football in Alabama is the 8000 pound Gorilla around which EVERYTHING else revolves. On any objective quality of life rating, Alabama has been and is in the bottom 5 of all states, but on the football field, "We're Number 1, Roll Tide!!!!" A reading of the Roman Empire's experiences with Bread and Circuses would be instructive, but that major was cut years ago for budgetary reasons. I propose the touchdown syndrome: the higher rated the college football team, both now and historically, the lower rated the overall quality of life for the state or region this football team "represents." Using that template could be very revealing.

  3. For example, UCLA is thought poorly of in football and is in a nice part of town, while USC is thought highly of and is in a mostly ignored part of town.

    Don't forget in these posts that UCLA is using student fee generated funds to help refurbish Pauley Pavillion. Mandatory student fees are tax deductible so these are more tax payer subsidized donations to athletics.

  4. You rightly point out that all not-for-profit universities are public to some degree due to the taxpayer subsidization of their coffers. Even prestigious "private" universities receive millions in public funding for research. Therefore, I think "private" universities should also do away with legacy admissions, as well as subsidies to athletic programs.

  5. Eric Fein, I think the earlier comment "making ‘Dave Schutz likes it’ a condition for charitable donation deductibility is probably not okay" is relevant to your comment on private universities. The idea that the government can issue orders to universities (or to charities) is a rather scary one—the only example I know of is when Yale Law School was enforcing its rule that "only equal-opportunity employers are welcome at job fairs", a rule which excluded the military, which wanted to send JAG recruiters. The feds threatened to withhold all research funding and IIRC Yale backed down. If that sort of heavy-handed pressure is applied to athletics, I dread the precedent it would set. Just wait until your local firebreathing Congressman realizes that your sociology department has a course entitled "Marxism, Cinema, and Queer Theory" (or whatever) and decides to put a stop to it. The test of what is or is not "charity" is a very loose one for a good reason—because any attempt to narrow the scope will turn into "Dave Schutz (dis)likes It" test, but replacing "Dave Schutz" with "any voting bloc anywhere."

    I agree that the tax-deductibility of athletic gifts is a waste. The statistical lobe of my brain says it's a Type 1 error—positively labeling something as charity which is not. I find it hard to work up much ire about that kind of waste, because when you try to reduce Type 1 errors you inevitably increase Type 2 errors—real charities getting falsely labeled as noncharities. I'm more concerned with the latter (which has academic freedom implications) than with the former. Anyway, if Mike keeps up the pressure it looks like UCB has a chance of doing the right thing internally, via faculty governance and so on, which is the right way to do it.

    The federal-research-funding side of universities is a red herring; research money is mostly allocated directly to research. The NIH doesn't give $1,000,000 to Ohio State for its general coffers, it gives $1,000,000 to some specific lab for some specific project with an itemized budget. (After which the lab gives 33% of it to the general coffers, but that's more complicated.)

  6. Prestigious private universities are educational institutions. Contributions to many of their operations are tax-deductible. Better yet, they may not even pay property taxes on most of their holdings to the cities and towns where they are located. Nice work if you can get it.

  7. BM, a third of federal grants and contracts (varies a little by school) is called indirect costs and usually disappears into a fungible campus-level pudding that is very hard to trace to its ultimate uses.

  8. Anonymous, I'm sadly familiar with indirect costs. The question is, how clear is the line between "Big Agency will not make grants to institutions where part of the overhead pays for athletics", and "Big Agency will not give grants to institutions where the overhead might support stem-cell research/gender studies/law clinics that sue the government"?

    Maybe it is a bright line; maybe that's an aspect of the "auxiliary enterprise" label. Maybe "academic freedom" is a strong enough skin that it can tolerate a close shave without fear of a nick.

  9. You have not even scratched the surface of these screenings for the NFL organizations, supported by the tax payers. Why does any college have any sports? Why should every tax payer support them. There are so many hidden amounts that only by examining every supporter and every player could you even begin to total up the absolute waste in college sports.

    I audited the Pell Grants for a major university in the late 1970s. I brought to my supervisor's attention that over half of the Pell Grants were going to athletes and at least thirty per cent of them were not even registered for classes.

    Hidden wasted money.

    The damn university did not even have a winning team.

  10. There's a scandal brewing in Kansas around its basketball team.

    KU is as close to a big league franchise as Kansas has.

    The corruption in intercollegiate athletics makes Wall Street look like an ice cream social.

  11. The overwhelming majority of the "3%" you refer to are actual student-athletes — rowers, runners, swimmers. And the amounts that go to support them are fairly small. The big money goes to the spectator sports of men's football and basketball, and of those football is far and away the greatest money-sink.

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