Capitol Alert

Divided UC regents table coach bonus policy

Poor graduation rates among UC Berkeley’s football players prompted a push by Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom to tie coach bonuses to academic performance.
Poor graduation rates among UC Berkeley’s football players prompted a push by Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom to tie coach bonuses to academic performance. The Associated Press

The University of California Board of Regents has tabled a new policy on bonuses for athletic coaches after Gov. Jerry Brown, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and other regents raised concerns that it did not go far enough in establishing academic standards for incentive pay.

“I am troubled by the spirit of this resolution,” Brown said during a discussion Thursday, before the policy was pulled from a vote and sent back to committee for further study. “These kinds of low standards because of monetary factors, I think, distort the fundamental essence of the university and its capacity to ... demand widespread support from the people of California.”

Originally approved by UC President Janet Napolitano last month, the policy would have required that student athletes meet certain academic standards before a coach can receive a bonus for academic or athletic performance.

Using the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate, a 1,000-point measure that tracks eligibility and retention among student athletes, coaches would have to keep their team above a score of 930. That is the same benchmark used by the NCAA for postseason tournaments.

Newsom sent a letter to the board on Wednesday arguing that the criteria would do little to ensure that UC athletes receive a quality education. Only one team – the UC Riverside men’s basketball squad – fell below the 930 threshold last year.

“This conversation started after the football program at UC Berkeley ranked last in the Pac-12 for academic performance, yet the new policy sets a standard beneath that failing grade,” Newsom said in a statement, dubbing it a “lower-than-last” metric.

The letter prompted Regent Bonnie Reiss to call for a vote on the policy, which was meant for discussion only. A related item delegating approval of athletic director and coach contracts to the university president was amended to include the new incentive pay criteria.

“Why are we setting forth a policy at a very low level and just counting on campuses to do more than that?” Reiss asked.

But continued debate on Thursday – an impassioned exchange that frequently ballooned into a broader debate about academics and athletics at the university – offered little resolution.

Newsom was particularly vocal, noting repeatedly that the NCAA already sanctions teams that fall below its academic benchmark, which equates to “modestly north of a 50 percent graduation rate.”

“The gatekeeper exists,” Newsom said. “We’re doing almost nothing here, under the illusion we’re doing something.”

His criticisms prompted a heated exchange with UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero, 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. He added that it would be unfair to penalize coaches whose athletes turn professional before graduation, which earns their team a lower mark on the Academic Progress Rate.

“Gosh, maybe our coaches should recruit three-star athletes who are slightly better students, rather than five-star athletes who are real competitors,” Guerrero said.

Newsom fired back that the disproportionate emphasis on athletic incentives for coaches was “comical,” pointing to a UCLA basketball contract that offered up to $270,000 for a strong postseason performance and only $10,000 for academic accomplishments.

“It’s off the charts,” Newsom said.

Upset by a “cultural arrogance” in the discussion that he felt devalued the role of athletics at the university, especially the opportunities they offer African American and Latino students, Regent Eddie Island urged the board not to go too far with its standard.

“A college degree is not the goal of every athlete who comes to the university,” Island said. “We ought not put harmful stumbling blocks in the way of young people whose dream” is to have a professional sports career.

The regents will revisit the incentive pay policy at a later date, after further reviewing what UC is already doing to assist student athletes academically and how they might be affected by stricter benchmarks for coach bonuses.

Regent George Kieffer, who chairs the board’s compensation committee and ultimately shelved the proposal, said in an interview that it would be “better for the board to have a greater consensus on this kind of an issue.”

Call The Bee’s Alexei Koseff, (916) 321-5236. Follow him on Twitter @akoseff.

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