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Cal sports academics: A response to the Chronicle's article on athletics admissions

The ongoing furor over the level of academic achievement within Cal athletics has spread to include admissions standards. What is the right answer?

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

This is running in place of 'Bear Raid Record Breaking,' which became too depressing to continue.

C Average gets Jocks into Cal

So screamed the sensationalist headline on, the Chronicle's website. To be fair, I don't think the writers of the article itself, Ann Killion and Nanette Asimov, had anything to do with that headline. But the implication is clear: It's about your athletic ability, not your readiness to learn that gets you in. SFGate slips in a mild pejorative in the process, just to get my dander up.

Of course, the Chronicle isn't reporting about this story for no reason. This is in the news because a report was released on campus entitled "The Management of Intercollegiate Athletics at UC Berkeley: Turning Points and Consequences," a serious and hopefully comprehensive look at how Cal Athletics has been run in the past and recommendations for how to improve outcomes in the future. The Chronicle article, by necessity, struggles to summarize a 38 page academic report. Twist NHook will likely have an article later taking a closer look at some of the issues with the Chronicle's reporting. For now, we're going to focus on the philosophical debate itself.

In any case, there is at least one thing that the paper written by John Cummins and Kirsten Hextrum and the Chronicle article seem to agree on: Cal should have higher admission standards for incoming athletes:

In 2011 the campus changed the admission policy to a three-tired system of: Gold, Blue, and Red. This new policy still uses a sliding scale for GPA and SAT minimums, with one main difference: a new floor for athletic admits. Under this policy, a Red student must have a minimum of a 2.8 GPA and an average of 370 on the three subject areas of the SAT scores. While this minimum is higher than the NCAA qualifier, it is not much higher. This paper recommends a higher minimum for admission for freshmen student athletes. While the authors here don't specifically address exceptional admission standards for transfer students-an equally murky and controversial set of practices-it is the authors' intent that changes to the process should be made applicable to all student athletes.

This is a complicated, challenging issue. And here's particularly why I find this challenging:

By and large, the athletes admitted with particularly low academic qualifications (as compared to the average incoming freshmen) are, by and large, poorer minorities coming from underdeveloped urban areas with significantly substandard school systems and academic opportunity.

So, how do you best respond to that reality?

1. You can choose to not admit these athletes.
2. You can admit them and not particularly care about their academic achievement beyond maintaining eligibility for their sport.
3. You can admit them, fully invest in their academic achievement, and make sure that they have every possible opportunity to graduate.

The Chronicle writers, and the authors of the analysis that prompted the article, would evidently pick option #1. Based on presentations I have seen from various folks from the athletic department, I think Cal, intentionally or otherwise, strayed too close to option #2.

The right answer is option #3.

Option 1 is complicated. I personally find it concerning at best and odious at worst that UC Berkeley (and UCs generally) have become so exclusive as to functionally shut out California's African American population. It's not a good thing that perhaps the ‘easiest' way for black males to get in to UC Berkeley is as an athlete. UCLA is facing the same problem in a rather public way:

Please, if you have the opportunity, watch the video. It's important. Surely we would like to say that this is UCLA's problem. But it's Cal's problem, and it's a problem for the entire state.

Of course, advocating to continue Cal's current athletic admissions practices doesn't solve the issue rightly pointed out in this video: African American students are marginalized unless they can contribute on the athletic field. But the solution to that problem most certainly isn't to remove the admissions standards that help African American athletes get to Cal in the first place.

Option 2 is obviously unacceptable, as the latest furor over graduation rates and APR scores indicates. It fits right in with the larger issue of the NCAA and college athletic departments exploiting their athletes for profit without necessarily providing them with the requisite support.

I do think that it is worth noting that Cal's academic struggles, from everything I've heard, haven't been caused by students who are unable to handle the course work. It's unusual for players to completely flunk out of school. That is a reality that directly refutes many of the insinuations made in the Chronicle's article. There's a reason that Cal hasn't had many players sitting out multiple semesters because of academic ineligibility. There's a reason that we've all been in the dark about how far the numbers had fallen.

Cal's numbers have been poor mostly because players complete their eligibility and choose to not finish their degree. Which brings us to a discussion about the ‘fit' of a recruit.

When you hear Cal's current football coaching staff talk about recruiting, you frequently hear them talking about the ‘fit' of the athlete. This staff received a clear instruction from the athletic department: win games, but fix the academic issues.

Does ‘fit' mean that Cal football will, at least for the time being, have some level of unofficial admissions benchmarks? Or does ‘fit' simply mean that the coaches need to get a read on the players they are recruiting to make sure that they actually care about getting their degree? As best I can tell, Cal's struggles in the classroom have happened because the previous coaching staff recruited more than their fair share of athletes who didn't value earning a degree. Again, to emphasize: these players were perfectly capable of earning their degree; it just wasn't a priority for them, which is why so many just dropped out after their final season even if they weren't going pro.

Certain stories make us most proud to be Cal fans, and Cal alums. Stories like Russell White, who only qualified at Cal because of admissions exceptions, but overcame his dyslexia to graduate. Or stories like Shareef Abdur-Rahim, who left school early, but came back and graduated with a 3.8 GPA. Cal can choose to go the route of Stanford, admit a collection of valedictorians, and then brag about how they turned successful kids into successes. Or they can give occasional chances to athletically gifted kids who come from tough backgrounds, and try to do right by them and help them graduate.

The latter is a much bigger challenge, but I don't think it would be keeping with the spirit of our university to back away from such a challenge.