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How to Say Very Little in 722 Words

I have a confession to make.  I used to love the San Francisco Chronicle.  In some ways, I still do.  Back before college the first thing I would do each morning after a big game was retrieve the Chron from the driveway and relive whatever happened the day before.  A two homer day from Barry Bonds.  A milestone Tedford victory.  Another F on the Raiders’ report card under ‘coaching.’  Effusive praise for Ben Braun, back before the long decline set in.  It was my only effective source of locally focused sports news and information.  But now, 6 years later, I only miss the Chronicle when I’m in an irrationally nostalgic mood.

Admittedly, I don’t hate the Chronicle.  Bashing the local paper has become something of a cliché in the blogging world, as every fan base of die-hards holds a disdain for reporters who can’t possibly match the passion they feel for their individual team nor agree with their interpretation of the facts 100% of the time.  Mostly, the Chron is simply obsolete – I don’t need it for breaking news and I finally realized that their writers are (by virtue of their monopoly on access) only slightly more qualified to interpret sports news than anybody else.

But I’m going to ignore the previous paragraph and break my own rule because a recent Ray Ratto offering rubbed me the wrong way.  Ratto is one of the few Chron writers who takes a consistent interest in Cal sports.  But rarely, if ever, do his columns analyze the events on the field.  More frequently he writes about the inner psyche of Cal fans and coaching/athletic department politics, and last Sunday's offering was no different:

This being Easter and all, it is rather a dodgy matter to invoke the name of The Man in a sporting context, let alone an accounting one.  Yet, when the chairman of Cal's Academic Senate, Christopher Kutz, told our Comrade Asimov on Wednesday afternoon that the university's athletic empire was about to endure "a come-to-Jesus moment for athletics, in which (the department) realizes that it needs to make difficult choices to stay within a sustainable level of resources," one thought leaped immediately to mind.  Why exactly does Jesus have to chair the meeting? I mean, isn't that in-box already full with more important matters?

Sigh.  Already we’re spending more time making jokes than analyzing the situation.

Then another thought followed it: Barring some heroic fundraising, creative accounting or the development of an overarching sugar daddy di tutti sugar daddies, some sports at the university are about to get the big haircut.

Now, I consider myself a reasonably intelligent person.  But I had no idea what ‘di tutti’ meant.  My favorite Ratto cliché is the "English phrase unnecessarily translated into a foreign language" trick.  Typically, Ratto favors the Spanish language which works better for me thanks to four years of high school Spanish.  But it almost always disrupts the flow of the writing.  Instead of focusing on the idea or the argument, I’m wasting time searching for a translation (in this case, ‘of all’) or wracking my memory.  All that for a not very clever turn of phrase.

We'll skip Concept 1 then, and move to the actual issue, which is how the eternal struggle of philosophies at Cal - academics versus athletics - has taken on such greater urgency with the increasingly shambolic nature of higher education in California.  Put another way, when the argument turns to money, philosophies stop being important.

Aha!  We’re finally getting into what this column is about!  A discussion of academics vs. athletics would indeed be worthwhile!  I hope that you don’t decide to skip that discussion three paragraphs later because it doesn’t move you either way!

The Cal athletic department funds 27 sports, of which two - men's basketball and football - make money, and a third - men's golf - breaks even. And that department, which traditionally has run a fairly sizable deficit, has been receiving gifts and loans from the university to keep afloat.  Nothing unusual there, except that with the state economy cratering and teachers and classes disappearing, the money athletics is getting has become a profoundly contentious issue indeed.  And when that happens, bad things follow.

Like what?  Bad things?  Bad things like a random professor complaining to the Chronicle?  Bad things like your newspaper writing an article about their complaints without allowing Cal’s athletic department to defend themselves?

You will not get a passionate defense of either side here; that's what we in the medical community call an internal matter among those who either work, attend, attended or simply care about the Cal experience more devoutly. The track-and-field-or-organic-chemistry argument just doesn't move us either way.

What?  You’ve wasted all of this time and effort and you won’t even give us your opinion on the subject?!?  What’s the point?  You’ve spend a few hundreds words on tortured syntax and exposition and your conclusion is ‘I’m not moved either way?!?’

But when Comrade Asimov quoted Chancellor Robert Birgeneau as telling the eight-person panel charged with dealing with the sinkhole of athletic funding, "We must get our intercollegiate athletics programs back on the path to financial sustainability," she showed that the crisis at Cal is finally here, and the philosophy argument is really beside the point.

Who is this Comrade Asimov Ratto keep referring to?  As it turns out that would be Nanette Asimov, the news columnist who wrote the original article.  Good luck figuring that out if Ratto’s column is the first one you’ve read on the topic.  Cute words get in the way of actual communication again.

Cal's problems are acute because the state's view of university funding, a hard economy and two large building projects - the $153 million student-performance center and the $321 million retrofit and upgrade of Memorial Stadium - have collided in a Venn diagram of non-sustainability. Philosophy has nothing to do with it, and neither does the notion of one person's malfeasance. This system has been in place for years, and as in all other sectors of the public economy, the IOUs just got called.  And guess who pays when that happens.

Donors to the athletic department?  Football revenue?  Loans from the University?  This is kind of an important question.  One that you can’t leave open ended, even if some people get the inference that you’re assuming the state/tax payers/student fees will pay the bill.

In truth, Cal could have solved all these problems by successfully schmoozing a multi-multizillionaire and letting him sit in the big leather chair, the way Oregon has in Phil Knight, or Oklahoma State in T. Boone Pickens, or Stanford in John Arrillaga.  But having missed the era of free-range billionaires, and buying today with money that was coming tomorrow, a problem most of America had, the athletic department is now boxed in tight, with only a few avenues of escape:
-- One, to make $6 million from the Women's NIT final. Possibility: Zero percent.
-- Two, to hope the football team gets to the Rose Bowl. Possibility: 16 percent.
-- Three, to hope it all blows over, and things go on as they were. Possibility: 21 percent.
-- Four, to make deep cuts and create huge resentments throughout the athletic community. Possibility: 63 percent.

Joke paragraph setting up a serious question.  Joke answer, joke answer, half-joke answer, what Ratto probably thinks will happen.  As Ragnarok described it, the clever-to-insight ratio of this column is probably 6-1. 

We also were going to list the possibility that the economy would heal itself in the next few months, but why indulge such fantasies? I mean, we just disposed of the Easter Bunny, so why create another mythological beast so soon?

We just disposed of the Easter Bunny?  In the sense that Easter is over?  What are you talking ab…oh never mind, what’s the point?  Anyway, I think we can indulge in the possibility that the economy is healing itself.  The U.S. economy isn’t contracting any more and unemployment is falling.  Perhaps Ratto is only referring to California’s economy and more specifically the state budget deficit and higher education funding gaps, which are significantly more intractable.

No, when an athletics-leaning administration declares that it's time for athletics to face the music, you know the music is going to be loud, atonal and grating. Across-the-board trims won't be enough, and reorganizing the funding mechanisms of the department will take too long. If the problem is now, the solution is, unfortunately, administrative.  And the son of the Christian God really doesn't handle the administrative side.

And here is where we come to the point of the article.  All 605 words prior to this paragraph can be summed up thusly:  ‘The Cal Athletic Department has a structural deficit and they aren’t sure how to solve that deficit.’  But here’s the problem.  We finally get the payoff of Ray Ratto’s expert opinion on the topic.  But there’s no evidence, no background, no reason to believe him.  Do we even know for sure that the Athletic Department will ‘face the music?’  How do we know that across the board trims won’t be enough?  And if the solution is in fact ‘administrative,’ what does that even mean?  It’s not explained in the least.  Cutting a sport doesn’t sound administrative to me.

We sit through so many bad jokes and twisted-to-sound-cute sentences for a conclusion that concludes and explains nothing?  There’s no real proof in the article that major cuts are on the way for the athletic department, unless one inspecific, standard quote from Chancellor Birgeneau or one angry quote from Academic Chair Kutz count.

But this isn’t any different than any other Ratto column.  This is his style.  And although I don’t really enjoy it, perhaps others do.  Why did this one bother me so much?  I guess because this is a really important topic that deserves better.  When millions of dollars are potentially going from academics to athletics, it matters.  When an entire sport that means a great deal to a group of students might be cut, that matters.  When the Chancellor, professors, donors and the Athletic Department get together to decide on a course of action, it matters.  This topic deserves better.

But you know what?  I don’t even think this is Ratto’s fault (other than for choosing to write about a complicated, nuanced topic while knowing he only had a few inches of column space to do so).  It’s a fundamental problem with the sports page and the newspaper.  The writer of the original article (Ratto’s ‘Comrade Asimov’) couldn’t be bothered to include information provided by the Athletic Department.  If the news staff doesn’t have the time, space, ability or desire to provide a more complete analysis, how in the hell can we expect a sports feature columnist to do the same?  The San Francisco Chronicle appears to be fundamentally unable or unwilling to fully examine the subject.

And when the biggest, most respected source of local news can’t do the story justice, it worries me.