UC Regents approve reforms to student-athlete policies

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Taylor James wakes up for 6 a.m. rowing practice with the knowledge that she’ll have a busier day than most UC Berkeley students could ever imagine. She’ll return from practice at 9 a.m. for her classes, which end around 3 p.m.

The senior legal studies student will then have another workout in the afternoon and also has to squeeze in a three-hour rehab session for her spinal surgery. But as she graduates this May, James still calls her time in athletics the best part of her UC Berkeley experience.

Because of a new proposal adopted by the UC Board of Regents, students throughout the UC system will soon be able to have the same amount of support that James had in her athletic career.

At a Wednesday meeting, a 14-point proposal to reform student-athlete policies throughout the University of California system — introduced by Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom — was approved by the regent’s educational policy committee.

In response to an alleged lack of systemwide student-athlete policies, Newsom’s plan consists of changes to policy in seven groups — administrative accountability, admissions, financial support, academic support, injury support, student life and annual reporting. The plan’s points range from restricting coaches from having the final say in admissions to implementing support mechanisms for struggling student-athletes.

“I got into college because of a baseball scholarship,” said Newsom, who attended and played baseball for Santa Clara University, at the meeting. “This comes from a place of strong advocacy for student athletics.”

An ex officio regent and candidate to succeed Gov. Jerry Brown when he leaves office in 2018, Newsom expressed concern about the degree to which student-athletes are actually students.

The whole thing is predicated on our moral authority that these are student-athletes,” Newsom said at the meeting. “Yet in revenue-generating sports, that’s very questionable at best. Survey after survey finds that these kids are spending 50-plus hours a week on these endeavors.”

“At UC Berkeley, we were among the first to discuss this,” said James, who is in her third year as president of the Golden Bear Advisory Committee, a group representing the roughly 850 student-athletes on campus. “(The plan) means that our universities and our athletic departments have a better understanding of how to take care of us in terms of injuries and mental health.”

The proposal comes more than a year after a similar proposal was tabled at a January 2015 regents meeting. That proposal, which Newsom opposed, would have tied coaches’ bonuses to the academic performance of their athletes and delegated contract-making power to the president of the university.

Rhys Williams, chief of staff to Newsom, called provisions in the January proposal “meaningless” and said it “did actually nothing in practice.”

Newsom’s proposal would require all UC schools to guarantee scholarships to student-athletes who suffer career-ending injuries, even to student-athletes who are on year-to-year instead of full-ride scholarships. The Pac-12 conference, of which UC Berkeley and UCLA are members, already requires this, but the proposal expands this practice to all UC campuses.

In the face of allegations from some officials that Newsom was taking credit for others’ ideas, Rhys Williams said the proposal was synthesis of best practices throughout the UC system.

“There were some great practices on some campuses, but there was no discussion between the campuses,” Williams said. “There was no sharing of ideas.”

Newsom singled out the recent academic success of UC Berkeley’s football and men’s basketball programs, which in 2013 held the lowest graduation rates of major athletic programs. Since then, the programs have markedly improved their academic standing, with the football and basketball teams achieving Academic Progress Rates of 997 and 1,000, respectively, for 2015. APR is a cumulative measurement, out of 1,000, of a team’s eligibility, retention rate and graduation rate.

H. Michael Williams, the campus athletic director and member of the working group that drafted the proposal, said while he supported the measure, the campus will do further work to alleviate the time burden on student-athletes.

Time demands differ from sport by sport,” H. Michael Williams said. “We want all students to experience the campus.”

At the meeting, Newsom said he will introduce a contract extension for H. Michael Williams, whose interim title was removed in 2015. The contract will prioritize academics over athletic performance and will serve as a model contract for the hiring of athletic directors and coaches.

The proposal was approved by the education policy committee without objection. On Thursday, the regents will finalize the approval of the plan as a part of the minutes of the entire three-day meeting.

Austin Weinstein covers academics and administration. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @aweinstein5.