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The Importance Of Special Admits In Cal Athletics

How important are they?

Bob Stanton-USA TODAY Sports

I wanted to talk today about special admits to the Cal. The Chronicle recently had an article regarding these special admits. The article starts off by throwing punches:

"UC Berkeley, the world's top-ranked public university, is admitting student athletes with shockingly low grades and scores if they show promise as revenue-generating football or basketball players..."

That is a very incendiary statement, but lacks a significant amount of context. For example, pretty much every other school ever provides exceptions for student-athletes. UCLA accepts even MORE special admits than Cal (as noted in this other, even more recent Chronicle article):

"...UCLA does admit underqualified students - 100 this year alone, compared with Cal's 36."

Here is Stanford helping its student-athletes out. Also, this is a process that has been ongoing for 35 (!) years. Nowhere is that listed. And only .001% of all students are admitted under the lowest standards here (%.007 if you combine the two lowest standards). Yes, we're talking a miniscule fraction of people. The article notes:

"Of 300 slots reserved for athletes, 20 may be admitted under the most lenient category that allows the lowest academic rankings, and up to 80 more can be admitted with slightly better scores."

There are approximately 14,000 people admitted to Cal a year, so 20/14,000 (or even 100 out of 14,000) is an absurdly small amount of people in the scheme of things. But that opening sentence wasn't:

"UC Berkeley, the world's top-ranked public university, is admitting between .001% and .007% of its annual freshmen with shockingly low grades and scores if they show promise as revenue-generating football or basketball players..."

That doesn't grab the attention quite as much. Additionally, student-athletes are not the only people who are let in to Cal with lowered scores. The article later notes:

The other "special admits" are generally skilled in dance, art, music or even math - but may not test well.

So, that initially sentence could have potentially been:

"UC Berkeley, the world's top-ranked public university, is admitting dancers with shockingly low grades and scores if they show promise as ballerinas..."


"UC Berkeley, the world's top-ranked public university, is admitting musicians with shockingly low grades and scores if they show promise as trumpeters..."

Why doesn't the Chronicle have an expose on the terrible graduation rates of ballerinas or trumpeters admitted to Cal? In my view, it is because people view athletics differently than the arts.

If you asked random people on the street about a ballerina who has dedicated years of her life to her skill and is one of the best in her high school, state, and nation, but just didn't test very well, do you think people would be amenable to her/him attending Cal, even if their test scores are lower than normal? I suspect they would. They'd chalk it up to an artistic personality or note that academics aren't that important to an artist.

I have a friend who was an incredible cellist growing up. She was focused on music conservatories as her collegiate experience and when it came time to take the SAT didn't prepare at all (as conservatories don't care about that stuff). As such, her score was fairly dismal. If she had attempted to apply to a normal school, the SAT score may have really held her back, but I don't think anybody would have asked for her to be rejected from Cal due to it. An exception would be understood.

Yet athletics aren't viewed the same way. If you asked the same thing about a football player, I suspect people would respond about a lack of academic focus stemming either from laziness or just plain idiocy. The dumb jock. Nobody ever talks about the dumb actor or the dumb musician.

I would argue that athletic skill should be viewed the same as artistic or musical skill. A talent with some amount of innateness that requires intense focus and dedication that can sometimes come at the expense of other aspects to ones' life. One that should be credited with opportunities that might not normally come in life.


But here is the thing, friends. Even if Chronicle's headless chicken style of writing was accurate and Cal was the only one doing this or had just made this change, I still think it is appropriate. We need to look deeper at college admissions here. I think it is important to note what these numbers are and are not. In and of themselves, they appear to be a hierarchical ranking of people based on skill. I have a 4.0, you have a 3.0, I'm 1.0 better than you, right? People imbue these numbers with a reflection of intelligence and work ethic. If you are smart, you'll get good grades. Even if you aren't that smart, if you work hard enough, you'll get good grades. So, if you got bad grades, you must be dumb/lazy.

I would posit that this ignores the role of privilege in society today. What do I mean? Let's dig a bit deeper.

When I got into Cal, I had very a very good SAT score (including a perfect score on the verbal). Was that solely because I'm a hard worker who isn't a total idiot? No. I may be a hard worker. I may not be a total idiot. But my SAT score reflects my privilege, in many ways.

It was also helped significantly by the fact that my parents paid for me to go to SAT tutoring (which was very standard amongst my peer group). In this instance, my privilege reflects itself in outside assistance that people with means could afford.

It was helped by the fact that I could spend a significant amount of time studying for the SAT test. I never had to have a job as my parents could financially support my family. I never even had to be worried about money for a second. In this instance, my privilege reflects itself in myriad other worldly concerns melting away, so I could focus solely on the SAT.

I'm not writing this to brag, but instead to break down why I did so much better than these athlete admits. My understanding is that many of them come from poverty-stricken areas where they wouldn't have what I had. They wouldn't have SAT prep, which puts them behind the eight ball compared to many other test-takers. They may have to take a job to help support their family, which limits their ability to focus on academics. They may have other factors, which limit their ability to focus on academics, including a fear of violence in their streets (which I never had to deal with, even remotely) or the ongoing financial collapse of their family.

It isn't even about high school. Study after study shows that early-life learning opportunities can shape ones academics down the line. I was in expensive Montessori schools from a young age. That put me in a position to succeed academically before many people would think of SAT scores or college admissions.

Items like SAT scores and grades don't just reflect intelligence or hard work. They also reflect much time people have to focus on academics or practice for the test. When you are privileged (as many of the people reading this are), a lot of distractions or other problems disappear so you have nothing but academics to focus on. When you aren't privileged, those other distractions preclude you from putting your primary focus on academics, leading to lowered test scores.

I do not write this to justify low test scores. However, I just wanted to open people's minds to what these numbers really mean. There is more than just a component of merit.

Which leads to the next point, which is if Cal has an opportunity to provide an education to athletes who normally couldn't get to Cal for reasons potentially outside their control, then why not do it? People view athletics as a way to get out of poverty, why deny them that opportunity?

You never know when you might end up with a Gabe King (I know nothing about the Gabe King's upbringing except to note that without football, it seems unlikely he'd end up at Berkeley):

Junior defensive tackle Gabe King has left the Cal football program to focus on academics. King is on track to graduate in May of 2014 with a bachelor's degree in African American Studies and will remain on a football scholarship for the remainder of the current academic year.

A series of tweets he sent out earlier this year show that his mind was opened by coming to Cal:




The argument here is that Cal has failed many of these special admits to date. That does appear to be accurate. As Billy Beane has shown so well, past performance does not equal future results. People seem to be ignoring that. A random comment I saw on a friend's Facebook status here stated the following that admitting these special admits was bad "...for the athletes themselves, for the other students in their classes, for the professors who have to teach them."

That pre-supposes that they have no chance at success at Cal. I don't agree with that depressing assumption. I believe it's possible to provide an excellent education to these special admits.

The problem here is not, in my view, admitting these special admits. Instead, it is failing them when they are here. That second Chronicle article from above outlines all the ways that Athletics seems to be failing its students.

The article also notes improvements that Cal is making/considering going forward:

For example, Cal is increasing the number of full-time learning specialists who help athletes navigate school as part of an academic improvement plan developed in the past year by Derek Van Rheenen, director of the Athletic Study Center. The football improvement plan alone cites 15 troublesome areas and offers solutions, such as creating a program to monitor athletes' academics, mandating at least six hours of tutoring each week, and providing weekly reports to coaches about athletes' academic progress.

Cal has gotten a wake up call with these bad numbers here. If Cal can redouble their efforts and provide greater academic support, they could have more Gabe Kings, who come to Cal for football reasons and then get a great education out of it.

Another thing that Cal should do is create a sports major of some sort. If you are a special admit for dance, there is a major for you. If you are a special admit for music, there is a major for you. If you are a special admit for football, you are shuffled off into a basic humanities which you may or may not enjoy. Why not create a sports-themed major?

It could include a variety of aspects relating to sports. History of sports in America. History of sports in the world. Sports law. Sports science. Sports nutrition. Sports politics. Sports finances. The reality is that sports relates to almost every other aspect of society. You could create an interesting major that has a variety of information. Additionally, it would be something that would, in theory, be very interesting to the student-athletes, so they would be more into it.

Conflating Eras

One other note that is relevant here is that the article is somewhat confused, because it conflates eras and information. For example, the article notes:

The National Collegiate Athletic Association announced in October that 38 percent of the men's basketball players admitted to Cal between 2003 and 2006 had earned a degree after six years. Forty-four percent of football players graduated during the same period. (Note: These numbers are already showing a marked increase)

They also show a chart relating to graduation rates from 1999-2005:


So, here they are comparing 1999-2005 and 2003-2006, which is a somewhat minor and overlapping conflation of eras. What isn't noted is that two different standards are used. This story is based off of an 38 page paper about the history and role of Cal Athletics:

I read through the whole thing and they actually reject GSR and use a different graduation stat instead. This FGR dings schools if players transfer or go to the NFL (instead of the GSR, which still counts those athletics positively as long as they were in good academic standing at the time of transfer). The authors of the paper support using this stat by noting that part of Cal's focus should be retention and if they are not retaining a player, then that should count against them.

However, I reject that analysis. Players might transfer for any number of reasons that have NOTHING to do with academics. It may be playing time. They may want to be closer to home. They may go to the NFL, because they have superstar talent. Cal should not be punished for an academically appropriate player leaving for the NFL to accomplish their dream.

I believe that this chart is created using the FGR instead of the GSR, because the paper has that exact information. The article doesn't really touch on these different standards.


In conclusion, this is yet another negative article on Cal Athletics, in my view. The article inflates small negatives to make things seem worse than they really are. The article lacks context to provides the fullest understanding of exactly what is happening here.

Additionally, the bottom line is this: Success at Cal football and basketball are a boon for everybody. There is only an upside to it and no upside to losing teams. Cal Athletics is becoming increasingly required to run a capitalistic enterprise despite the substantial amount of non-capitalistic pressures placed upon it (Title IX, etc etc). If academic-focused people want a self-sufficient Athletics that no longer sucks at the teat of the school (unlike so many other programs), then you need revenue sports that can support the non-revenue sports.

Additionally, success with football/basketball creates a sense of community that dwarfs the sense of community academic or artistic success can create at Cal. That leads to increased academic donations. To wit:

Second, while there is no precise way to determine the marginal contribution our IA program

makes to academic philanthropy, UREL estimated in 2010 that a significant reduction could lead

to losses, in academic philanthropy, of as much as 10% (at that time $25 million) of giving

annually for a significant time. The report containing this estimate went on to say: “It is also

worth noting that 25 of the top 53 lifetime donors to campus have given substantially to IA, and

22 of these donors have given much more to academics than athletics.” According to the donors

themselves, their willingness to give is predicated on Berkeley’s overall program, both academic

and athletic. If one acknowledges this, then it necessarily follows that our IA program generates

additional net revenue to support Berkeley’s academic mission – even if one takes central campus

support fully into account

Academics is benefited substantially from successful athletics, while athletics is actively harmed by academics (before you jump all over me, I refer to the professorial revolt against Athletics from a few years that).

When considering all these factors, I believe it is appropriate for Cal, a la every other football program ever, to continue to open their doors to athletically successful people as they have for the last 35 years, even if their academics are not where they'd like them to be. Cal just needs to increase its efforts to provide academic support and create a major that is more appealing to athletes.