Cal sports update

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…

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.

11 thoughts on “Cal sports update”

  1. When I was at Berkeley – and Diplodocus were at play in the Emeryville mud flats – we had a biochem major on the football team, if memory serves. And Stanford regularly cleaned our clocks. So we were better on the academic side of the comprehensive excellence claim. I think it was better then. But I would, wouldn’t I?

  2. I think the most trenchant comment I have heard about graduation rates came from former Auburn basketball head coach Sonny Smith. A reporter asked him how many of his basketball players graduate. Coach Smith replied, “Every one that wants to.”

  3. Big-time college sports — essentially the top divisions of football and men’s basketball — are a strange creature indeed. They are a major entertainment industry of developmental/semi-pro sports, crudely grafted on to college extra-curricular activities. They have complicated rules and customs — different for different sports — that exist nowhere else in our society. It should never have happened that way; American higher education has committed a slow-motion blunder since the late 19th century in tolerating it. However, it it here, it is deeply entrenched, and it is on the whole a pretty stable enterprise. The Berkeley issues described here occur with variations at most of our best public and private universities. Coming up with a coherent agenda for dealing with it that is grounded in both principle and reality is as challenging as beating USC, Oregon and Stanford. I will let you know if I think of something.

  4. Typically men’s football and basketball subsidize the rest of the athletic department. So the men on the football field end up pay the scholarships for all those money losing programs like women’s softball and women’s swimming. Let me ask you this question. Is it really ethical for the often poor minority student athletes on the football team to be subsidizing the often rich white women on the swim team?

    In a way, this big renovation of the football field is really a subsidy for women’s athletics. Because the football facilities allow the team to be more successful by bringing in better recruits. A more successful football team generates more revenue, which is promptly funneled into these money losing sports.

    1. Is this even true? The accounting w/r/t college-professional sports like Basketball and Football can get really, really hinky. It’s always a question whether the teams are being charged for all the expenses they incur, including capital costs for their immense facilities and staffing all of their events, and on the revenue side they are often credited with revenue that they did not being in – for example, credited for all sales of university-branded merchandise, as if none would have been sold without the renown of the sports team, or credited for a much larger share of alumni giving than can actually be traced to the teams.

      The dishonesty surrounding college-professional sports is legendary – that the division 1A team starters have a damn thing to do with the university, or receive an education for starters; you try putting in hard physical effort six or more hours every day of the week and spending every other weekend on the road, and see how hard you can hit the books, especially when the books are irrelevant to your life goals, and when dozens of people with millions of dollars riding on you and your peers remind you of their irrelevance every day. We should hardly expect their accounting to be held to a different standard than their entire existence.

      1. Yes it is certainly true. Cal football subsidizes the athletic department. This is typical of big time football schools (even though Cal is the low end of big time). Do a google search. Or just read my fisking below.

    2. That is certainly what the football program at my (currently) nutzoid alma mater in the SEC would have you believe. This particular athletic program is one of those that operates in the black. Apparently. But nationwide you can count those “profitable” programs on your digits, and perhaps have a couple of toes left over. I’ll take a stab at listing the profitable athletic programs: Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Tennessee, FSU, Virginia Tech, Clemson, Miami (until they get the death penalty, soon), Ohio State, Penn State (not for long, perhaps), Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Notre Dame (running on fumes and Chicago money for now), USC, UCLA, Washington, Stanford, Oregon (as long as Phil Knight stays interested). You might include Duke, Kentucky, and UNC on the strength of basketball, but I doubt it. Anyway, there is no way renovation of the UC–Berkeley stadium on the fault line is going to be a financial net plus. Too much in sunk costs. My friends and colleagues who were undergraduates there say they went to the football games, but I cannot imagine that, by and large, most students and alumni do not have better things to do…BTW, I have stayed in the Faculty Club at Berkeley a couple of times. That is a nice statue of the former coach just outside the building in a beautiful setting. But it is in kind of an obscure place, isn’t it? Unlike this one, for example:

    3. This is simply rubbish. The swim team (etc.) run on small budgets. It’s true that they have no prospect of making a profit, but then, neither does the Rhetoric Department. The football and basketball programs are big gambles: a great deal of money is invested, and for a minority of programs (generally, those that win consistently) it pays off. Most football programs lose money.

      1. Do you have any evidence that this is “rubbish”? The swim team costs money in coaches salaries and athletic scholarships. It makes no money in TV revenue or ticket sales or merchandise.

        On the flip side Cal football netted almost 6 million dollars in 2010:

        Where does the money go? Well the coaches get around 3 million dollars. Then there is the cost of facilities and athletic scholarships. But remember that much of those costs are subsidized by the apparel company that supplies the uniforms. So I’d guess that about half of the revenue that the football team rakes in is lost to revenue losing sports like swimming and women’s tennis.

        I have sources. You have butthurt conjectures. Typical. Come back when you have a clue.

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