Cal football team shows raised bar for admissions and improved academic scores

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After weeks of scrutiny regarding its academic woes, the Cal football team has significantly raised its academic standards.

According to a San Jose Mercury News report released Tuesday, the football program saw marked improvement in its admission standards of new recruits. Eighty percent of football players recruited for fall 2013 met the University of California’s admission requirements, compared to only 39 percent of recruits in 2011.

Additionally, the percentage of football recruits categorized in a group considered the most at risk academically declined to 7 percent from as high as 39 percent in 2010.

The university’s statewide admission requirements constitute completing 15 yearlong high school courses — including four years of English classes to one year of visual art classes — before graduation.

The figures come weeks after the NCAA revealed the Cal football team graduated only 44 percent of its players who enrolled to UC Berkeley from 2003 to 2007. This number was the lowest among the 72 programs in six major college football conferences.

The following media coverage placed Cal Athletics in the spotlight and prompted the campus to address the matter. On Dec. 11, Chancellor Nicholas Dirks addressed the academic issue in the football team in his holiday message.

“It is clear that we still have serious work to do,” Dirks said in the message. “I will do whatever is necessary to make sure that our rhetoric is matched by our performance.”

Dirks also stated he will “work closely” with a new task force to improve academic performances within the Intercollegiate Athletics department. So far, only the chair of the task force — UC Berkeley professor emerita of anthropology Margaret Conkey — has been appointed to the committee.

“We have a crisis, and we’ve got to take advantage of a crisis,” Conkey said. “Intercollegiate Athletics can’t fix this on their own. It will take other campus services to fix this.”

While Conkey applauded the football program’s improvements in bringing better recruits to UC Berkeley, she pointed the main difference in the positive shift has been the change in the culture and the coaches.

Under football coach Sonny Dykes, the program has seen some academic improvements. Cal Athletics estimates its newest graduation rates for football players who enrolled into UC Berkeley will rise to 65 percent. Based on this year’s Academic Progress Rate estimates, which will be publicly released next spring, 85 percent of football players are currently on track to graduate.

According to a report co-written by UC Berkeley associate professor Richard Rhodes and professor Bob Jacobsen examining the failures in graduating student-athletes, the main cause was that too many football players abandoned their last semester at UC Berkeley to train for the NFL draft.

“This is largely a failure of coaching,” the report said. “Those students were not getting realistic advice about their NFL prospects, nor were they being encouraged to make the hard choice between remaining as a student or working on their professional football career during the spring.”

In recent years, resources to keep players in school and on track to graduate have significantly increased. The Athletic Study Center recently tripled its number of staff members devoted to helping football players with their classes.

According to the center’s director, Derek Van Rheenen, there have been talks about creating a mentorship program between the football players and influential African American members of the community to provide help beyond the classroom.

“The intention is to provide a more holistic purpose beyond football,” he said.

With the recent emphasis on devoting resources to improve the football team’s academic achievements, Conkey and others hope it can expand to help all students graduate from UC Berkeley.

“We need to think about everybody that doesn’t finish school,” Conkey said. “We need to get a better handle that will not only increase graduation rates for student-athletes but for everybody else.”