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.
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.
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.