Editorials

Gavin Newsom places his stamp on UC sports policy; it’s a start

California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom discusses a proposal to expand financial aid to student athletes in the event of a career-ending sports injury, during a meeting of the University of California governing board on Wednesday.
California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom discusses a proposal to expand financial aid to student athletes in the event of a career-ending sports injury, during a meeting of the University of California governing board on Wednesday. The Associated Press

The University of California deserves an “A” for effort in its proposed new athletic policy.

Passed Wednesday by the Board of Regents governing board and scheduled for a full vote on Thursday, the new rules take on a fundamental question in the age of big-money collegiate athletics: how to balance sports and academics. The issue touches on fault lines that divide both the 10-campus system and society.

UC awarded nearly 2,700 athletic scholarships last year, with benefits that vary wildly, depending on the program. Athletes at UCLA and UC Berkeley, NCAA Division I schools, are covered by generous new Pac-12 rules that include four-year scholarships and expanded financial aid. But those schools represent only about a third of UC student-athletes.

Campuses without glitzy sports and media money can’t afford such assistance, but athletes across the board still must spend big chunks of time at practices, games and workouts. And in the big-money programs, those pressures can be compounded by campus admissions practices that let coaches recruit gifted players who lack the preparation to cut it in the classroom. Small wonder that in 2013, a report by the NCAA found UC Berkeley’s football team to be posting some of the nation’s lowest graduation rates.

Clearly, systemwide change is needed. The chances of a professional sports career for most NCAA athletes is somewhere well south of 2 percent.

Clearly, systemwide standards are needed, and so is a sense of perspective. The chances of a professional sports career for most NCAA athletes are somewhere well south of 2 percent.

The proposed policy, shaped by a working group under the leadership of Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, would make at least one important fix for athletes who become injured and have to stop playing. It would guarantee financial-aid grants at all Division I and II programs not just until the end of a scholarship, but until the athlete’s degree is completed. The rules would also make clear that coaches don’t make the call on final admissions, lessening the temptation to admit athletes who can’t compete in the classroom.

But the policy stops short of the sweeping change truly needed to restore balance. There’s no requirement, for example, to write coaches’ contracts in a way that equalizes incentives for academic achievement with those for, say, berths in playoffs, and not enough of a hard line on balancing the time commitment between sports and academics.

We hope this will change if the policy passes. Perhaps one of its most important provisions calls for an annual report on UC’s progress in meeting the new benchmarks. That could mean an annual chance at making UC’s approach to this issue stronger – and an ongoing conversation, which we need, both here and nationally.

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