To save college sports, don’t look to UC Berkeley for ideas

Associated Press

How to clean up college basketball and pay for college sports? Herald Leader columnist John Clay said we should listen to Golden States Warrior coach Steve Kerr, a “smart guy” who “thinks outside the sports box and speaks his mind.”

According to Kerr, “The NCAA model is a really good one. I’ve got two kids who went through the NCAA model of playing in college, getting their education. My daughter got a scholarship to the University of California. That was not paid for by Cal volleyball. It was paid for by Cal football and Cal basketball. So, you’ve got the revenue-producing sports that are helping to pay for the other 20 sports. I like that model. I think it’s great. You’re putting out a lot of student-athletes into the community who are learning and getting their education and being part of a team.”

This sounds good. In fact, it’s too good to be true.

Kerr is wrong. The model he finds at UC Berkeley is a recipe for disaster. Its athletics funding is in great trouble, with a $16 million deficit last year.

First, the Cal football team loses money. It does not help pay for women’s sports.

The football stadium renovation debt is $238 million. This means that its annual debt-service payment next year will be $18 million — of which $9.5 million is paid from the university’s Central Campus, providing a subsidy to football.

This is a gift that keeps on giving, as the athletics department and football program will receive this subsidy year after year for over a century, with annual debt service fee rising to $26 million per year starting in 2032.

It is not alone among financially challenged big-time football programs. Only 22 out of the 120 football programs in NCAA Division I showed a surplus. Big-time college football may be good at generating revenues. It is even better at generating expenses.

What about colleges’ other major money sport, NCAA Division I basketball?

In 2015 a third of the 68 men’s basketball teams in the NCAA tournament reported that they did not show an annual surplus. They either broke even or lost money for their seasonal operating revenues and expenses.

These 68 teams represent the most successful programs, so as one goes down the complete list of NCAA Division I men’s basketball teams, the sobering finding is that most lose money.

Kerr is out of bounds for another reason when he erroneously applauds the generosity of Cal’s football and basketball programs for funding athletics grants-in-aid to women’s sports, such as volleyball, gymnastics, soccer and field hockey.

The university and its athletics department are required to fund these athletic scholarships. The athletics department and university chancellor signed a binding agreement with the federal government that if Cal ever does eliminate any of its 30 athletics teams, it will not be women’s varsity squads.

Failure to adhere to this would put the athletics department out of compliance with Title IX. This then would put the entire university’s federal funding in jeopardy, including National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation research grants to academic programs and to a university’s medical center.

It also would risk the university’s eligibility to receive Pell Grants and other federal student financial aid payments.

Paying for women’s athletic scholarships is not merely a nice thing to do — it’s the right thing and legal thing to do.

So, for the University of Kentucky and other colleges committed to a strong varsity sports program that aims to be self-supporting, there are no easy or obvious answers.

In NCAA Division I, presidents and athletics directors are going to have to look elsewhere for sound models and solutions. The sad lesson of Cal athletics is that for the Golden Bears, all that glitters is not gold.

John R. Thelin is a professor at the University of Kentucky and an alumnus of the University of California, Berkeley. He was also a charter member of the NCAA’s research advisory council. Reach him at jthelin@uky.edu.