Partisan Position: UC Faculty Raises Questions about Value of School’s Athletic Programs

By Raymond Barglow
Thursday November 05, 2009 - 08:35:00 AM

Although it is widely believed that the Department of Intercollegiate Athletics (DIA) earns a profit for the Berkeley campus, its financial statements reveal that it significantly outspends its revenues every year, depleting precious campus resources.” 

So begins a resolution that will be taken up by the UC Berkeley Academic Senate today.  

The resolution requests that the chancellor of the Berkeley campus require the school’s intercollegiate athletic program to become self-supporting. 

This program has tens of thousands of followers, who gather at Memorial Stadium, Harmon Gym, and Edwards Track to support Cal Bears teams. At a time when UC is suffering a severe financial crisis, the fans’ enthusiasm, which consists not only of cheering but also of gift-giving, is certainly welcome. Team spirit brings thousands of Berkeley alums to the campus, some of whom might not donate to their alma mater if it were not showing its athletic excellence.  

But recently a group of faculty at Cal have made a discovery: It turns out that Berkeley’s athletic program has been running in the red for years. The resolution that is being submitted to the Academic Senate provides evidence that the cost of the program exceeds the sum of its economic benefits.  

One author of the resolution, UC Berkeley Computer Science Professor Brian Barsky, has written a letter to The San Francisco Chronicle stating that “all the revenues and donations to Cal intercollegiate athletics fall short by millions of dollars annually to cover excessive expenditures of this program, which is propped up from the campus’ coffers with funds that could instead keep the library open on Saturdays, for example.” He adds that “It is a myth that intercollegiate athletics earns money for the university; even the NCAA reports that increased spending on athletics does not increase alumni donations to the university, prompting its president to advise college presidents to reconsider their institutional spending on sports.” 

The Academic Senate resolution also proposes to tie coaches’ salaries to Intercollegiate Athletics’ net income. This would address the situation at Cal where, despite the university’s fiscal shortfall, football coach Jeff Tedford receives a $2.3 million annual salary—higher than the pay of any other California public official. 

The faculty resolution has a bearing as well upon the university’s plan to upgrade Memorial Stadium, which sits on top of the Hayward Fault. The Omnibus Act signed into law by Governor Schwar- 

zenegger exempts the stadium from safety legislation that would normally restrict such reconstruction. But if the Academic Senate resolution were to become university policy, this project would be ruled out by its expense, estimated at $321 million. 

The controversy here about the appropriate role of sports in the university has society-wide implications. I perceive this in my work as a tutor. I conduct SAT/ACT test preparation workshops at East Bay high schools and see that some of the male students are counting on their sports prowess rather than their academic skills to open doors for them. In a workshop at Oakland Tech High School, a young man told the other students and me that he planned to get an athletic scholarship to college and then become a professional football player. An hour before the workshop was over, he departed for football practice, leaving behind the other students who were diligently reviewing plane geometry. Maybe this student will get along fine without knowing the mathematical properties of right triangles. But I wonder whether he, along with so many other high school students who place their faith in an athletic career, is over-impressed by the allure of high-stakes athletics. 

It’s true that one of Oakland Tech’s graduates, Leon Powe, became a basketball star at Cal and then was recruited to the NBA. But how many students will be able to follow in his footsteps? Worry of this kind has been voiced by African-American athletes such as Arthur Ashe, Charles Barkley, and Harry Edwards. Edwards, who is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at UC Berkeley, speaks of “the tragedy of thousands upon thousands of black youths in obsessive pursuit of sports goals that the overwhelming majority of them will never attain … the drain in talent potential toward sports and away from other vital areas of occupational and career emphasis, such as medicine, law, economics, politics, education, and technical fields.” 

Given the economic and symbolic meanings of athletic performance—meanings that powerfully influence the lives of young men and women in our society—the battle that the Academic Senate is taking up this week is one whose contours far surpass the boundaries of the Berkeley campus. Cal’s playing fields and floors anchor an institutional blue-and-gold culture that draws attention to and builds the reputation of the university. “Tradition!” Cal fans shout back at the critics. And that is a weighty, although this time perhaps not a winning, argument. 


Raymond Barglow is the founder of Berkeley Tutors Network, which prepares high school students to take the SAT and ACT exams.