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Tough Stance: A Q&A With the Authors Who Say Cal Athletics Should Learn from Stanford

December 9, 2013
by Pat Joseph

All hell was breaking loose over UC Berkeley’s abysmal graduation rates for football and men’s basketball players as California magazine was doing final edits on the Winter 2013 issue. That magazine was to include an in-depth interview with the authors of a paper on the Cal Athletics program, which, in singling out graduation rates and the commercialization of sports on campus, helped spark the recent controversy. Instead we are posting the Q&A, in which the report’s authors lay out their specific concerns and recommendations, right here, right now.

Among their advice to Cal Athletics: be more like Stanford.

The news coverage over the past few weeks has focused on recent NCAA figures indicating that the football team’s graduation rate was 44 percent—the worst of any program in a major athletic conference. The University has responded by both acknowledging a problem and touting “sharp improvements” in those figures.

Any improvement is welcome, but the problem is not likely to be resolved without some real soul-searching and reforms concerning the University’s priorities vis a vis athletics, contend the authors of the 60-page paper contend. That paper, commissioned by Berkeley’s Athletic Study Center, was written by UC Berkeley Associate Chancellor Emeritus John Cummins and Kirsten Hextrum.

Cummins retired in 2008 having served as chief of staff to four chancellors—a position that put him in the eye of nearly every storm that blew across campus, from the riots over planned development in People’s Park, to protests over University investments in apartheid South Africa. A valedictory profile of Cummins in the now-defunct Berkeleyan ran with the headline, “John Cummins puts controversy behind him.” Hardly.

Hextrum—a former varsity rower on Cal’s national champion crew teams and now a doctoral student in the Graduate School of Education—has been an advisor and tutor in Berkeley’s Athletic Study Center.

Below, we ask the two to explain the conclusions of their report, entitled “The Management of Intercollegiate Athletics at UC Berkeley: Turning Points and Consequences.” In it, they argue that no campus administration has ever “fully defined the role and purpose of recreational and intercollegiate sports and their connection to the academic program.” Instead, say the authors, the leadership approach has been “laissez-faire,” as one chancellor after another has “muddled through” as best they could. This has resulted in some notable successes—but many serious problems, as well, including NCAA violations, financial deficits, and intolerably poor graduation rates, particularly in football and men’s basketball, the two big-ticket sports on campus.

Among the authors’ recommendations: insisting that coaches to follow the so-called 20-hour rule, and raising the minimum SAT score requirements for recruited athletes.

It’s our hope that the web’s speed and interactive nature encourages all stakeholders—athletes, administrators, students, Californians—to weigh in on this issue.  

California: Your white paper was written in response to the poor graduation rates in football and men’s basketball in recent years. Has this been a perennial issue?

John Cummins: Without a doubt. And it’s certainly not unique to Cal. At the center of the issue is recruiting. One of the things that we’ve been looking at is the example of Stanford, because they’ve never had a problem with graduation rates and they’ve never had a major NCAA violation. Why is that? According to several people I interviewed there, the single most consistent part of their program is the recruiting of student-athletes who can compete academically at Stanford. They’ve held onto that all these years, and they’ve been successful.

You write in your paper about chancellors using “their bully pulpit to praise the values of intercollegiate athletics,” even as they “know full well that, if UC Berkeley were to start from scratch in the creation of an intercollegiate athletic program, it would never resemble the huge business enterprise it has become.” Well, let’s say you could have a do-over. What would it look like?

JC: I think it would be more along the lines of the Ivies or Division III. What obviously drives big-time college sports is money and media. There’s a huge amount of money to be made, and this has been true for quite some time. The universities and colleges have allowed themselves to be co-opted into a system where money becomes the big driver. If you look at the expansion of the Pac-12, for example, that was a business decision. And even though people think big-time sports make a lot of money, [they] still require money of many institutions, including Berkeley. There are major problems funding this enterprise.

There have been five reports over the years on intercollegiate athletics at Cal, including the Smelser report in 1991, and they all deal primarily with the finances.

It’s an interesting moment on campus. We have a new head football coach and a new chancellor. We also have a new, half-billion-dollar stadium to pay for. How do you address the subject of money in college athletics now?

JC: I think it is being addressed, actually, through lawsuits. And maybe that’s the only way it will be addressed. The Ed O’Bannon lawsuit dealing with the commercial rights to a college athlete’s image is now expanding to be a class-action suit vis-à-vis paying of athletes. And recently you had football players from five or six major schools who participated in a protest while they were playing—APU: All Players United. This is amazing, because the question here is will the football players, the student-athletes, stand up and say, “Wait a second, what is going on here? All this money seems to be flowing to the institution. People are making a lot of money. Athletic directors, administrators, coaches. What about us? Is the athletic scholarship significant?”

And then there’s the whole concussion issue. There are suits against the NCAA and the NFL recently settled. There are some very prominent people who think football won’t be around in 15 years. So you can imagine—if that’s the case, then what do we do with that stadium? It’s a major problem.

I interviewed about 70 people: chancellors, former chancellors, athletic directors, faculty athletic reps, donors, some coaches. Nobody thinks this current system is working. It is, in some sense, out of control.

Well, people talk about college athletics as an arms race. You can’t just unilaterally disarm, though, can you?

JC: No. I think that’s highly unrealistic. It’s exceedingly difficult. If you’re the chancellor, you’re very concerned about not alienating donors. That’s a very critical part of this. And the donors that I interviewed, they understand this problem and the dynamics involved. For example, some of them said that while they didn’t like the cutting of sports, they could understand it from a business point of view. How do you continue to pour money into an activity that is very, very costly?

Kirsten Hextrum: What we’re arguing here is that there are small, manageable steps that you can take to make things a lot better. For example, hold coaches to the 20-hour rule [limiting the hours per week a student-athlete is expected to devote to athletics], or think about admissions differently, or take a stand in terms of coaches’ salaries. $500,000 would be a lot of money for most people, one of the top salaries on this campus, but that’s just a laughable head football coach’s contract. Why do we continue to allow that?

JC: There’s also the issue of Rec Sports on campus. No one disputes the value of wellness, but what’s the institution’s responsibility there? The national standard for the number of square feet per participant in recreational sports is about 9 square feet. At Cal, the statistic is about 3.3 square feet. That’s where I work out, and it’s absolutely jammed. Is that fair to the campus community?

KH: I’m up at the High Performance Center every day for tutoring, and the workout space is ginormous! And you do see teams using it, but there’s so much room over there for students. Why wasn’t there a plan from the beginning where that space could also have been used by Rec Sports? As long as we keep going down this road of athletics being separate, separate, separate, you’re just going to continue to see it become a lightning-rod issue.

A lot of people, I think, have this notion of the student-athletes as part of a coddled, privileged class.

KH: From my experience in an Olympic, nonrevenue sport, it was easy to resent the football players. It was easy to say, “Oh my god, the football players get a new T-shirt every day!” You’d see this gear that they got, or the facilities they had, and then you’d look at what you didn’t have. So in some ways I empathize with the students in that regard, but what gets missed is that they’re getting this T-shirt in lieu of everything else. The players are very aware of that. They’re like, “Great, you’re giving me another extra large T-shirt to add to my collection.” And it’s not that they’re not grateful for that, but it’s this very odd dynamic. Instead of actually focusing on the student’s experience at Berkeley, it feels to certain student-athletes like the administration is just relieving guilt, like, “Oh if we give you enough gear, if we give you these facilities, we’ll keep everything OK.”

It doesn’t matter if these players are able to fly on a private jet to the game. What matters is that, because they have to do that, because all this money’s being made on this game, they can’t always be full-time students. And they can’t enjoy their athletic experience to a certain degree, either, because of the pressures and the time demands on them.

It’s not an easy thing. As Sandy [Barbour, Director of Athletics] said, Athletics is the brand of the University. You want to make it look shiny and new and special, but I think the students who are having to promote that brand are getting left out of the discussion.

JC: One of the people we interviewed at Stanford said that in his view, Cal compromised its brand in terms of recruiting for football.

By lowering the academic standards?

JC: Right. That’s clearly one issue. The second one is the graduation rates for black athletes. There was an article that was written back in 2005 that raised the question of whether our flagship universities were exploiting black athletes. It looked at the gap between the graduation rates for black student-athletes versus student-athletes as a whole, and it singled out Berkeley to highlight the gap.

For the longest period of time, there’s been this huge effort on campus with regard to diversity, affirmative action, etc., and yet that’s completely contradictory to those efforts. It flies in the face of who we are. It really does.

KH: When you average it all as a whole, Cal has this great talking point where you can say “Oh, Cal athletes have a 78 percent graduation rate”—but that disguises what’s happening with these other groups, particularly African Americans. I think both male and female black athletes feel a burden in terms of representation; they know that athletes are overrepresented in the black student community….John and I have also talked a lot about how admissions should not be using athletics as a way to get diversity. That’s creating an even larger issue in terms of race relations on this campus, just in terms of perpetuating that stereotype.

One of the recommendations in your report is that there should be a field of study at Berkeley devoted to athletics. Why would that be a good idea?

JC: If you look at special action admits—students with special talents who are admitted to Cal despite not having the GPA and test scores to get in—athletes are the only group that doesn’t have some kind of academic relationship. If it’s music or dance or math, et cetera, there’s an academic connection. Athletics is the exception.

It wasn’t always the case. We had a really good physical education program, yet a decision was made to do away with it. Even now, though, within integrative biology, the courses that relate to human biodynamics are extremely popular. The University of Michigan and the University of North Carolina have programs devoted to sports. Of course, both of those schools have medical schools, and we don’t, but that doesn’t rule out working with UCSF. The head of the program at the University of North Carolina, Kevin Guskiewicz, is a very prominent researcher on concussions. They’ve been studying this issue for 20 years there.

The point is, I don’t think what we’re thinking about is “Here’s a little major over here, dump athletes into it.” It would be a hard major. Certainly athletes would not have to take it. But there are plenty of students here, including nonathletes, who would be interested. And that would help to integrate athletics into the functioning of the campus.

So, if I’m Nicholas Dirks and I ask you, “What can I do in my first year as chancellor to put athletics on the right course,” what would you say?

JC: I’d address the admissions issue right off the bat. I would make every effort to ensure that the kind of students we’re bringing here have every likelihood of succeeding. And when we had looked into this, that was not the case. And it’s not Tedford’s fault—he could ask for whoever he wanted. You need to have basic ground rules within the institution. UC Davis has instituted a floor; students have to be UC eligible, or don’t bother recruiting them.

And that’s what you’d want to see adopted here?

JC: I don’t know that it has to be that firm. But the danger in not having a pretty clearly defined floor is that you have a situation like we’ve had in the past five of six years with really poor graduation rates in football and [men’s] basketball. That never should have happened. It’s very embarrassing to the institution. I think everybody recognizes that, and I don’t think it’s sufficient to say, “Well, we have to look at every student individually and blah blah blah.” Keiko Price, who was the academic coordinator for football, is very clear: We shouldn’t be admitting people who have less than a 400 in any of the three subject areas on their SATs. That seems very reasonable. That’s the national average.

KH: We’re not trying to say that the SAT is a great measure of ability. But I think it needs to be that plus an examination of what happens to that student once they’re here. My fear is we start only admitting students with at least 500 SAT scores, and their graduation rates are still bad because we haven’t solved any of the larger issues. Something has to give on the athletic side, as well, in terms of minimizing the amount of sway and pull that the coaches have over the students.

So, help us articulate what you see as the role on this campus for what you call in your paper “athletics writ large.”

JC: You’re getting at what is the ethos of the campus? What does the campus stand for? And what we found at Stanford is this pretty consistent ethos about admissions, about the payment of coaches, how high they’re willing to go there. They don’t have these kinds of dilemmas that we do, this major controversy over athletics. Another campus we looked at is Notre Dame. They have a very long history because football in particular was so important to the whole university’s development, but they were also very clear about what the expectations of that program were. A lot of universities, I think, have not done this.

KH: We use the term “integration,” really in response to faculty who want athletics to be privately funded, to be kept as an auxiliary. I think it’s fundamentally the wrong approach. If you integrate athletics into the campus, there’s a UC Berkeley ethos you bring to it. There’s a separate “Cal ethos” that people say is connected to alumni, athletics, etc. But it should be about integrating those two personalities. Faculty are drawn here from around the world; they come here for lower salaries because there’s something about this place. There’s something about Berkeley. There’s an expectation of greatness.

JC: Well, that’s the interesting thing, because if you go back to the Smelser Report, which is quoted over and over again, it says there should be this broad-based, highly competitive program that mirrors the academic excellence of the University. Does it?

Sandy Barbour talks a lot about “comprehensive excellence.”

JC: She cares about academics. Sonny Dykes clearly got the message. There’s no question about it. Those graduation rates are going to improve, no question. The problem is, ten years from now, are we going to be right back here? Will the wheel turn again? I don’t think it has to, I really don’t.

You’ve alluded to all these reports released over the years. Is yours just one more to add to the pile?

JC: [Laughs] I don’t know. All we can do is say, “This is our view.” People will agree or disagree.

For more information:

The text of the Cummins/Hextrum report is here.

For a different take on Cal Athletics, a paper written by the campus’s faculty athletic representative, physics professor Bob Jacobsen, and associate professor of linguistics Richard Rhodes is here. 

A Nov. 21 post from the UC Berkeley News Center citing “Sharp improvement in Cal Bears’ graduation rates” is here. 

Note: The original version of this article mistakenly suggested that about 1 in 3 African-American male students and 1 in 5 African-American female students at Cal is an athlete. The actual figures are 1 in 5 males and 1 in 15 females.


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