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College sports at a crossroads

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APRIL 01, 2013

If impulsive California legislators and the money-hungry National College Players Association have their way, UC Berkeley athletes may soon be going pro.

The Sacramento Bee reported Saturday that California State Assembly Bill 475, currently being considered in committee, would require UC Berkeley and UCLA to pay student athletes an annual stipend of $3,600 and guarantee their scholarships for five years. Assemblywoman Cheryl Brown (D-San Bernadino), carrying the bill through the legislature with the NCPA’s sponsorship, told the Bee: “They should say here is your five-year scholarship. Here are the tutors you need. The $3,600 stipend, that’s toothbrushes and other things.”

Those are some pricey toiletries.

Beyond the costs of tuition, room and board, books, and tutoring that are already covered by UC Berkeley full-ride athletic scholarships, it’s hard to imagine any UC Berkeley student spending more than $1,000 a semester on incidentals like snacks, clothing and gold-plated toothbrushes — and that’s more than a little generous. Absurdly, in the bill’s current language, the stipend only applies to students already receiving full rides from the university.

If any UC Berkeley student athletes struggle to meet living costs outside of their full-ride scholarship, it has nothing do with their participation in athletics and everything to do with extreme economic circumstances. So why give the stipend only to athletes?

If legislators were honest with themselves, the citizens of California and the students of this university, they’d acknowledge that AB 475 is just another attempt to address the current reality of college sports: student athletes are money makers, and they’re paid extraordinarily meager “salaries” in light of the revenue they generate. Lofty NCAA rhetoric about amateur athletes has grown rote as the commercialization trend continues, so educational institutions are looking for alternatives. The bill would professionalize college sports at UC Berkeley — and some are welcoming it.

But public education in California has arrived at a critical crossroads — as the tide of public opinion swings in favor of financial compensation for student athletes, institutions of higher education must decide whether running heavily commercialized, expensive and burdensome athletic departments is a violation of their traditional academic commitment and credibility.

The NCAA’s widespread “Going Pro in Something Other Than Sports” television ad wowed viewers with statistics about the supposedly stellar academic performance of student athletes, ending with a feisty question-and-answer: “Still think we’re just a bunch of dumb jocks? You need to do your homework.”

At UC Berkeley, however, our homework is done. In October, the NCAA released data revealing that only 48 percent of Cal football players who enrolled here between 2002 and 2005 graduated within six years — the lowest football graduation rate in the Pacific-12 athletic conference. Of male varsity basketball players who received athletic aid to attend UC Berkeley in the same period, only 36 percent graduated in a six year time span.

This unfortunate reality may have something to do with the UC Berkeley athletic department’s role in ensuring high-value recruits are admitted through the admissions office’s “Admission by Exception” allowance. Sixty-three student athletes were admitted for the 2011-2012 school year without satisfying UC Berkeley’s admission requirements — or perhaps more accurately, the 2011-2012 “season.”

Clearly, even at this prestigious academic institution, either college athletics has become time consuming to the point of absurdity, or the “student” athletes in revenue-generating sports like football and basketball are simply not up to snuff in the classroom.

A common argument for maintaining the current collegiate athletic system is that it promotes education for those who might not otherwise be able to earn a college degree — especially minority groups. It’s as if athletic scholarships have become a less-objectionable form of affirmative action. But rather than inspire students to achieve where their prospects are best — in the classroom — the structure of American athletics pushes students to the high-stakes gamble of big-time football and basketball.

It’s high time someone takes on the NCAA. Under the guise of a nonprofit organization, the arbiter of all things college sports has deceived young people across the country into believing that competition in NCAA Division I big-money sports and meaningful, lasting higher education are not mutually exclusive. But sadly, the evidence increasingly suggests otherwise. And with annual revenues in the hundreds of millions of dollars, we’ve paid a high price.

The University of California should lobby intensely to kill AB 475 — because California universities should be moving in precisely the opposite direction. Exceptions in the admissions process, disturbing levels of athletic department spending on comprehensive support for full-ride athletes and twisted incentives embedded in this nation’s sports machine are all signs that we have travelled too far down the road to commercialized college athletics — and the only way to move forward now is to turn back.

$3,600 toothbrushes be damned.

Contact Connor Grubaugh at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter: @connorgrubaugh.

MARCH 31, 2013