Rankings show Cal football team has lowest graduation rate in Pac-12 conference

Kore Chan/Staff

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After a series of devastating losses on the field, the Cal football team has been dealt another blow: Recently released PAC-12 rankings show the team has the lowest graduation rate in the league.

Only 47 percent of football players who entered UC Berkeley between 2002 and 2005 graduated within six years, according to the rankings released by the NCAA Oct. 25. This rate is five points lower than the year before and represents the lowest graduation rate the team has reported since 2002.

By comparison, the six-year graduation rate for the UC Berkeley undergraduate student body as whole was 90 percent in 2012.

In a statement last week, head football coach Jeff Tedford said that while the rates were “clearly unacceptable,” there is little a college coach can do to prevent his players from entering professional leagues — a phenomenon to which he attributed the Cal team’s lower rankings.

In a private interview, Tedford pointed to the fact that five of the 19 seniors in the class of 2012 left the campus to join the National Football League.

However, according to rankings from the NCAA that did not penalize the team’s rate for players who left for the NFL in good academic standing, the grad rate was still only 48 percent, one percent higher than the overall.

The lure of the Big Leagues

The statistics and experts agree: dreams of the NFL can be dangerous for players’ academic pursuits.

“Football is the team that receives the most public promotion, if you will, and that can be terribly distracting,” said Cal Athletic Director Sandy Barbour. “The lure of the NFL as their profession is not for every one of them, but you also can’t tell me that every one of them doesn’t come to Cal thinking they’re the one.”

While all student-athletes face the pressure of balancing athletics and academics, football players are especially influenced by the dream of going pro, according to Barbour.

Consequently, other Division I men’s sports teams on campus typically have higher graduation rates. The men’s baseball team and the men’s cross-country and track team, for instance, graduate 86 and 89 percent of their players in six years, respectively.

Derek Van Rheenen, director of the campus Athletic Study Center and a former Cal student-athlete himself, said the issue is tied to the competitive nature of Division I collegiate football itself — a competition that is becoming increasingly commercialized.

According to Tedford, that means the stakes for athletes are higher than ever — much higher, he said, than when he was on the college team for California State University, Fresno, in the 1980s.

“Absolutely, college football has become a business, a big deal,” Tedford said.

Time commitment 

The football players themselves have a slightly different take on the difficulties of being a student-athlete.

Outside linebacker Brennan Scarlett wakes up at 6 a.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays to attend a three-hour morning practice before class. After finishing classes by 5 p.m., he has football meetings beginning at 5:30 p.m. that typically last until about 8 p.m., leaving him with only a few hours of free time before his self-imposed 10 p.m. curfew to study and relax.

While Brennan admits that “balancing the Berkeley education” with football is challenging, it was the prestige that is built on this academic rigor that originally attracted him to the campus. This fall, he will be applying to the selective Haas School of Business undergraduate program.

According to Van Rheenen, the time commitment that football players make has become increasingly demanding over the years because, unlike other sports, in Division I football, “there is no offseason” for players who practice year-round to stay competitive.

When Donnie McCleskey played for Cal football between 2002 and 2005, he used his summers to load up on credits so he could complete his degree on time. Nowadays, says McCleskey, who volunteers with Van Rheenen to support players’ academic pursuits, many players choose to spend their summers training elsewhere to get ahead in hopes of increasing their prospects for getting drafted to the NFL.

These cramped schedules can be a major difficulty for athletes who want to pursue academic goals like Brennan’s, according to Van Rheenen.

“We should go back to the real amateur athletes,” he said.

Supporting athletes 

But that is not to say the campus has not made efforts to support athletes’ academics.

The campus provides a range of resources to help athletes along, from early class registration dates to designating coaches that check in on players’ attendance

One such resource is the Athletic Study Center, which Van Rheenen heads. Brennan and other players said they use the center daily as a crucial aid for managing school work. The center offers one-on-one tutoring, advising and study resources both at the Student Learning Center and within the newly built $150 million Student Athlete High Performance Center.

Last fiscal year, the Athletic Study Center had a budget of $1,070,987, according to public records.

Tedford acknowledged the importance of football players utilizing resources like these and cited mandatory tutoring and advising as a key parts of his academic plan to improve the rates, which he said were a setback the team is recovering from rather than an institutional problem.

But according to Van Rheenen, academic support services alone cannot solve the real problem behind suffering graduation rates. That problem, Van Rheenen says, is part of the institution of college football and would be solved by making athletic scholarships fully financial aid-based.

“Players would make a much more conscious decision about their educational goals if they were not tied to athletic performance,” Van Rheenen said, pointing to the greater academic success of players in Division II and Division III sports.

Although Van Rheenen’s idea has some traction on the national level, he acknowledged that, for the most part, it remains a radical proposition that is unlikely to be implemented.

A success story

Cal linebacker Robert Mullins is one of 13 of the 18 seniors on the football roster set to graduate this fall.

Mullins says he has worked hard to maintain his 3.0 GPA.  After sustaining an injury that left him off the field for a semester, Mullins adopted a practical outlook on his football career that he says is responsible for his academic success.

“I’m not putting all my eggs in one basket,” said Mullins. “I’ve put a lot more thought into my career outside of football.”

While going pro would be an unexpected surprise, Mullins is realistic.

“Football doesn’t last forever,” he said.

Contact Shirin Ghaffary at [email protected].

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    1. NCAA has become Farm system for the pro teams. now.

    2. college is feeding system for the pro teams. Millions are made by univeristy/coaches.

    3. 1-2 of college football players go pro. thus, 98%-99% do NOT make a single penny playing sports.

    4. UC, like all public colleges, should post all classes, lectures, research online for the tax-payers, people who paid for it.

    5. NCAA football/basketball is now the “products” sold to the world to earn money?

    Forget academics/study, all the money is about sports/sports/sports now.

  • Guest

    Lower than $C?? Sure Cal is more difficult by a factor of 10 or more but so is Furd. Yet another humiliating black eye that Tedford has given the University.

  • Cal football fan

    Cal needs a new start with a coach who can consistently produce victories. In these tough budget times, Tedford is the most overpaid man in California, but no one will do anything about that.

  • rwenos

    This is pathetic. Here’s how to increase the graduation rate: Enroll in 12 units a semester. Go to class. Do the work. Players who skip classes don’t play that week. Class of 1975.

  • I_h8_disqus

    It is sad to read Sandy and Tedford’s statements about why the graduation rates are low. Their excuses can be used by every college, but Cal is still last in graduation rates in the Pac-12 and really low in the total nation. There is something specific going on in Cal football that is keeping our athletes from graduating, while national ranked teams like Oregon, Stanford, and USC are graduating more players. We can blame Tedford and Sandy for this, because they are in charge of these students. They recruited them, they got them admitted, and they provide the environment. Any athlete that doesn’t graduate is mostly their fault.

  • Calipenguin

    I don’t blame our players for looking out for their football careers while they’re still healthy. We had so many players get hurt at the last game because they were trying to compensate for poor coaching and teamwork. A serious injury ends any chance for a NFL career. Good luck to the ones who make it in the NFL or even IFL, and hopefully they’ll return to finish their degrees after they finish their football careers.

  • Nunya Beeswax

    Perhaps it’s time for us to abandon the fiction that our sports programs are populated by scholars, and just throw in the towel on the whole scholar-athlete idea. Perhaps we ought to admit that college athletics is really a case of universities fielding semi-pro teams on their campuses, and go from there.

    I mean, really–don’t you sports supporters get tired of the pretense?

  • current student

    this is almost laughable. our players going to the NFL?

    • Irritated

      You clearly don’t follow Cal football very closely. The REASON Tedford is on the firing line this year is because so many of Cal’s players become NFL talents after they leave. Aaron Rodgers, Desean Jackson, Nnamdi Asoughma, Desmond Bishop, Jahvid Best, Shane Vereen…the list goes on. Cal currently has the second most players in the NFL of any Pac-12 school. USC is first.

      The product he puts on the field is much less than the sum of the parts.

  • Cal student

    So much for the “student-athletes” and their coaches who are taking $10 million a year from the academic side of the university. Many of these athletes receive exemptions to the UC minimum admission requirements, and displace academicallly qualified students.

    • guest

      The NFL, not colleges, should be subsidizing college football, because they’re really the ones profiting from it.

      • Retiree and Donor

        Dear Cal Student: I totally agree. It has always been interesting to me that unlike, for example, baseball, where the major league team owners have to expend money for a minor league system to prepare their major league players, the NFL football team owners do not have such an expense — it is absorbed up by the colleges and universities who who expend millions of university and university donor funds to prepare the NFL team owners’ players. At a time when universities are in dire financial straits, it seems odd for the University family to be paying millions of dollars to help the NFL team owners by providing them with a few professional football players each year.

  • observer435

    “best public academic institution in the world” — keep drinking the kool-aid, man. you honestly think sitting in a room with 700 peers watching a tired prof lecture on a video screen is the epitome of education?

    • observer435, perhaps for once in your life you might struggle to sit through the discomfort of a college lecture, which you cannot comprehend, surrounded by students who can!

  • If we have so many players entering the NFL, why do we suck so bad against the other amateurs?
    Fire Tedford NOW!

    • Dump Tedford and the whole intercollegiate athletic fraud he represents!

  • Current Student

    “In a statement last week, head football coach Jeff Tedford said that
    while the rates were “clearly unacceptable,” there is little a college
    coach can do to prevent his players from entering professional leagues —
    a phenomenon to which he attributed the Cal team’s lower rankings.”

    1) Yes. Players on a shitty college football team with a terrible record are mostly NFL material.

    2) Football players are idiots. That’s why they don’t graduate. Admit that your “student athletes” are not worthy of being at the best public academic institution in the world, and then we can talk straight.