Capitol Alert

UC regents set to OK policy to boost academic performance of athletes

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom discusses new guidelines for athletic programs during a meeting of the University of California governing board on May 11, 2016 in Sacramento.
Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom discusses new guidelines for athletic programs during a meeting of the University of California governing board on May 11, 2016 in Sacramento. The Associated Press

The University of California is set to adopt new guidelines for its athletic programs aimed at raising the academic achievement of student-athletes.

The 14-point policy – which was approved Wednesday by a committee of UC’s governing board and will advance to the full Board of Regents for a vote on Thursday – institutes priority class registration, guarantees that scholarship athletes who sustain career-ending injuries continue to receive equivalent financial aid, and requires most campus athletic directors to report directly to the chancellor of their school.

A longer section on “guiding principles” emphasizes educational support and student welfare, including the NCAA rule limiting teams to 20 hours of practice per week. It also states that athletic directors and coaches should be evaluated on the academic performance of their teams and that coaches should have no role in the final admissions decisions for prospective students.

The regents, who will receive annual reports from UC’s Office of the President on implementation of the changes, largely praised the guidelines for affirming the university’s commitment to the academic success of its athletes.

“We should not ever underestimate our students. We should not ever rob them of their opportunity to gain a degree,” Regent Eloy Ortiz Oakley said. “Because the most valuable asset we have is not athletic achievement, it is a degree from the University of California, and that should always be the priority.”

Experts said it was commendable that UC crafted a formal written policy, which most colleges have not done, but that the practices were fairly standard and would likely have minimal impact.

“It’s an entertainment enterprise, and you’re trying to meld it with an academic enterprise,” said Mark Nagel, a professor of sport and entertainment management at the University of South Carolina. “The bottom line is always going to be two different philosophies.”

David Ridpath, an associate professor of sports administration at Ohio University, said the university could have gone much further in protecting the health of athletes and ensuring they receive a quality education, like providing lifetime scholarships that allow them to return to finish their degrees.

“These things are supposed to be ... done already,” he said. “Keeping a kid eligible and educating them are not the same thing.”

But Donald Polden, chair of the Institute of Sports Law and Ethics at Santa Clara University, applauded UC for developing a uniform approach across nine campuses with varying athletic resources and membership in difference conferences.

“This is a good attempt to create greater accountability and responsibility,” he said.

UC began developing the guidelines after some regents, including Gov. Jerry Brown and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, raised concerns last year that the university had established low academic benchmarks for coaches to receive bonuses. The university was coming off embarrassing headlines that the Berkeley campus had the worst graduation rate of any major football team in the country, while its basketball team’s graduation rate was the lowest in the Pacific-12 Conference.

Newsom, a former scholarship baseball athlete at Santa Clara University, was particularly critical of what he viewed as UC’s lackluster incentives for coaches to ensure the academic achievement of their teams. His comments led to a heated exchange with UCLA’s athletic director, who argued that tougher standards would hurt the university’s ability to attract top coaches and might encourage athletes to pursue less academically rigorous paths.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Newsom thanked the university for taking his concerns seriously and praised Berkeley’s new athletic director, Michael Williams, for a “model contract” that “values academics above athletic performance.”

But after a few regents cautioned the university not to diminish the value of athletic accomplishment and the opportunity it afforded some students who might not otherwise be able to attend UC, an exasperated Newsom hinted that he was not entirely satisfied with the guidelines.

“There’s nothing you should be concerned about in terms of the bar being raised here in terms of academic requirements. Frankly, that’s a point of some critique that I have,” he said. “Don’t worry. We’ll still be able to recruit and still be able to compete with these policy principles.”

Alexei Koseff: 916-321-5236, @akoseff