The headline at the University of California's Berkeley campus this fall is: Baseball Strikes Out. But in making hard decisions to benefit higher education, and perhaps to influence the thinking of administrators across the nation, Berkeley has hit a home run.
Although not the first large school to eliminate a major sport due to financial pressures - and certainly not the last - the decision by Cal to drop its 118-year-old baseball program along with four other varsity sports, for an immediate savings of $4 million, has brought the controversy over the cost of college athletics into sharp focus.
Exorbitant expenditures for college sports, while growing scandalously for many years, are becoming intolerable at a time when tuitions are climbing and classes are being cut.
Over the summer, a report by a panel of teachers and alumni concluded that Berkeley's sports finances were "out of control," noting that in just the last three years, deficit spending on sports rose from $7.4 million to $12.1 million. The report not only recommended eliminating some teams at Cal, but also urged a nationwide push to reform spending on big-time college sports.
Such reforms will not be easy because the majority of Americans, including many wealthy donors, cling to the notion that athletics are integral to the character and esteem of colleges and universities. Sports with the highest profiles - particularly football and basketball - have become such mammoth businesses that structural changes are almost more daunting for administrators than improvements to the education process itself. Who could have imagined just a few years ago that the basketball coaches at Duke and Louisville would now be earning over $4 million a year?
But even the largest schools with the most successful athletic programs are finding that the numbers no longer add up. For example, Michigan State's $81 million sports budget last year required nearly $4 million in school subsidies. According to a published report, Division 1 public schools depend on $1.8 billion in subsidies and student fees.
The process of tacking "athletic fees" onto students' bills, in some cases as much as $1,000 a year, is rising at an alarming rate. As a first step to curb this practice, The Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 requires schools to report separate figures for tuition and fees.
Despite enormous pressure from powerful alums who believe school prestige is measured, at least in part, by victories in sports, the national trend in adding sports teams has finally reversed. MIT cut eight teams last year - including golf, Alpine skiing, hockey and gymnastics; the University of Washington saved $1.2 by dropping its swim team; the University of Maine eliminated men's soccer and women's volleyball.
But such cuts barely scratch the surface - in overall budgets, as well as in the mindset of sports supporters. Recently I sat in on a discussion with Lee Reed, the new athletic director at Georgetown University, which operates 29 sports teams. Reed was asked pointedly why at a time of rising tuition the school continues to subsidize its football team, which, unlike the high profile Hoya basketball squad, is a perennial loser both on the field and at the bank.
His answer was candid and enlightening: "The alumni insist we have a football team." When pressed, Reed said he was taking steps to make the football team more competitive - as if that should have anything to do with the weights and measures of budgeting for higher education.
As one who loves sports and roots passionately for my favorite teams, I realize how painful it is for schools to even consider discontinuing major programs. In an editorial following the cuts at Berkeley, The Daily Californian student newspaper wrote: "It is unfair and unfortunate that years of mismanagement have yielded this consequence," adding, "it is now the administration's responsibility to ... make sure these cuts were not made in vain."
Faced with rising tuition and slumping endowments, the nation's colleges and universities must act quickly to correct the financial drain from collegiate sports. Reducing coaching salaries would help, as would eliminating students' fees used to prop up losing sports ventures.
But in the end, a major reassessment of where competitive sports fits within the larger picture of higher education may be necessary. The battle to make colleges more effective and affordable can't be won on the ball field, but that's one area where the game is being lost.
Peter Funt is a writer and public speaker; he may be reached at www.CandidCamera.com. He's also the long-time host of "Candid Camera." This column is distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons, Inc., newspaper syndicate.