UC Berkeley News


On and off the field, Cal athletics goes for the gold
There's good news and less-good news in the NCAA decadal self-study . but no 'systemic' problems

| 03 May 2006

To the thousands of Cal boosters who live and die with the fate of Berkeley's 27 intercollegiate-sports teams, winning is a thing devoutly to be wished. But for NCAA Division I colleges and universities, Vince Lombardi notwithstanding, it's definitely not the only thing.

There are now "no meaningful differences" in facilities, equipment, and support between men's and women's sports at Berkeley - good news for Cal soccer star Courtney Hooker. (Michael Pimentel, GoldenBearsSports.com photo)

In accordance with the national governing body's rigorous certification requirements, the campus is now completing the final leg of a marathon self-examination of its athletics program, with emphasis on how Cal plays the game on three critical fronts: governance and commitment to rules compliance; academic integrity; and equity, welfare, and sportsmanship. Come October, a team of outside "peer reviewers" will make a site visit to check the work of Berkeley's faculty, staff, student, and alumni investigators, subjecting athletics to a level of outside scrutiny worthy of a research paper in molecular and cell biology.

And that, says the academic who led the months-long study, is just as it should be.

"We are studying ourselves, and that's a healthy process," says Michael Nacht, whose day job is dean of the Goldman School of Public Policy. "We have reviews of all of our academic units, and they're usually conducted by outsiders - people who are not within the unit, or a mix of people who are and are not in the unit. You want a healthy assessment of where you are, and where you're falling down, and what your achievements are. So even if the NCAA didn't require it, some version of this, perhaps at a reduced level of effort, should be undertaken."

Nacht, an "avid sports fan," notes that the real aim of the self-study is, in the words of the NCAA, "to demonstrate the university's fundamental commitment to integrity in intercollegiate athletics." The national-security and foreign-policy expert had some crucial training for the role of head coach to a sprawling, campuswide team of investigators. A dean at the University of Maryland in 1986 - when basketball star Len Bias died of a cocaine overdose 48 hours after being picked by the Boston Celtics in that year's NBA draft - Nacht was one of the administrators and faculty chosen "to look at every aspect of athletics at Maryland" in the wake of "a major, first-order crisis for the university."

The steering committee for the NCAA Self-Study Report is seeking input from members of the Cal community about its findings and attendant recommendations. Comments should be sent to NCAA-SELF-STUDY@berkeley.edu no later than noon on Monday, May 8.

An executive summary and the full report are online.

At Berkeley, thankfully, the self-examination was far more routine - it's required by the NCAA every 10 years - but no less exhaustive, with more than 50 campus faculty, administrators, students, and alumni taking part in the effort, which began in earnest last fall. The steering committee, chaired by Nacht, coordinated the field work of three subcommittees comprising 10 to 12 members each.

"This is a lot of work," observes Athletic Director Sandy Barbour, who's been through the certification process twice before, at Tulane and Notre Dame universities. "The study itself and the NCAA requirements can be very laborious, involving a lot of data-gathering and a lot of interviews," the bulk of which, at Berkeley, were conducted by the subcommittees. But Barbour, who sat on the steering committee, was happy to have her program placed under the microscope.

"Athletics really welcomes this process," she explains, "because it gives us an opportunity to get better. But it also gives others on campus who, during the regular course of our busy lives, might not have interaction with athletics, the opportunity to get to know a little bit about us and how we go about our mission."

She notes approvingly that Nacht and all three subcommittee chairs were people without direct ties to Cal's sports program. "I really think the purpose is for people outside of athletics to examine athletics," she says. "And of the three places I've been, that probably occurred here to the highest degree. And I think that's a good thing."

Issues of gender and race

For the most part, the report's findings are good news for the campus, especially when it comes to one of the areas identified as a problem a decade ago: gender equity. In contrast to the situation in the 1990s - when women student-athletes contended with inferior locker-room and practice facilities, tougher schedules, and less vigorous fundraising and publicity than their male counterparts, among other inequities - the report found that today "there are no meaningful differences between men's and women's sports in these program areas." Similarly, compensation packages for coaches of men's and women's teams are now "relatively equitable" save for Cal's two major revenue sports, football and men's basketball.

Those sports are also the focus of one of the report's unhappier findings - a "significant" discrepancy in graduation rates between student-athletes in football and basketball, which have the largest percentages of African American students on their rosters, and the student population at large. That said, the report also found substantial progress in football under Coach Jeff Tedford, and points out statistical quirks in basketball - such as the comparatively small rosters and the tendency of players to transfer or turn pro prior to graduation - that may skew the results.

Athletic Director Sandy Barbour: "Academics will always, always, always be promoted in this department." (John Dunbar photo)
"In issues of gender and issues of race, which can be hugely volatile issues on campuses, they're not reporting systemic, major problems, which is fantastic," says Nacht.

He's less sanguine about the impacts on Cal athletics of anti-affirmative action Proposition 209, approved by California voters in 1996. Whereas only 1 in 10 African American men on campus were student-athletes before the passage of the initiative, the ratio has now reached 1 in 3. "I think that's a highly undesirable consequence - maybe unintended, but a highly undesirable consequence - of 209," Nacht says.

The report also found that student-athletes here are represented in a spectrum of courses and majors "similar to the general student body," albeit with a pronounced 7 percent preference for American Studies, a major that fails to turn up in the top 15 choices for non-athletes at Berkeley.

"We can't take certain classes because we have practice, and we can't do certain majors because we can't take the courses we need," explains Jillian Davis, a starter on the women's volleyball team who participated in the self-study. Missed class time, she adds, "was a huge issue, and that will never really change, but an athlete just has to expect that this is going to happen. But the committee was really interested in letting the faculty know of our time constraints, which is a great thing."

'Dumb jock' stereotype

The need to further bridge the cultural gaps between student-athletes and the general campus population - faculty and students alike - is another concern voiced in the report. Athletes at Berkeley make up less than 5 percent of undergraduates, as compared to nearly one-third at some universities. As a result, "The stereotype of the 'dumb jock' may be experienced both externally and internally, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of academic underachievement and even failure," it says, calling on faculty and staff to "work in concert to support and nurture the academic and intellectual potential as much as, if not more than, the athletic talent of Berkeley's student-athletes."

"They did find reported to them a number of cases where student-athletes felt that they themselves were isolated or frowned upon by non-athletic students. I think that's part of a climate on campus that we have to work on," says Nacht. "A student-athlete shouldn't be viewed a priori as not academically capable. That's not justified at all. But that doesn't mean people don't feel that way."

To Barbour, a former deputy athletic director at Notre Dame and A.D. at Tulane, occasional conflicts between sports and academics are "learning moments."

"Where we can do some great work is in making sure our mission is clearly articulated, is widely understood and accepted, and that can only be achieved if our mission is viewed as in concert with that of the institution as a whole," Barbour says. "What we're about in athletics is exactly what our professors on this campus are doing in the classroom - promoting excellence." Noting that more than 500 student-athletes (out of roughly 800) earned 3.0 or higher grade-point averages for the fall semester, she adds: "Academics will always, always, always be promoted in this department."

"You'll know how clear a message is if people are able to tell you what it is. And [the investigators] found that a lot of people are not so clear about what the message is," says Nacht. "I think the message should be that we want student-athletes who are going to perform at their very best academically and athletically. They have a dual responsibility. They're citizens of the university, and we are first and foremost an academic institution.

"We have high standards academically and athletically," he concludes, "and we don't want to compromise on either one."