California budget woes hurt athletics
Everyone knows it. The state of California is a mess. Voters canât decide if they want to legalize same-sex marriage, pot or both; the only news I hear about Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown comes from slanderous negative advertisements; and it has rained for the last week. I forget what the sun looks like.
Oh yeah, then thereâs that $20-billion state budget deficit. Unfortunately, the Governator canât force Dez Bryant to pick up that tab.
Like the wrath of swine flu, nothing is immune from the budget shortfall, including collegiate athletics at public institutions. This deficit has been, directly or indirectly, the cause of a few events in the past month that signal a power shift in athletics from public to private universities in California.
This became apparent last month when Cal cut five varsity sports, including baseball, womenâs lacrosse and the most successful menâs rugby program in the country, which has won 25 national championships since 1980.
The cuts will reduce the universityâs financial commitment to sports from $12 million to $5 million by 2014, but that is only a sliver of the $150-million deficit the university reported last year.
In the wake of this news, USC decided to add womenâs lacrosse as a Division I sport. USC President C.L. Max Nikias told Annenberg TV News last week that the formal announcement will come in a few months.
âWe are in the process of recruiting the coach for the team and then we will make the announcement,â Nikias said. âLacrosse is becoming very popular. Itâs more popular in the East Coast, but now it is becoming more and more popular in the West Coast.â
But Nikias didnât stop there. He said that after a womenâs team is added, more Division I sports could be coming.
âI wanted to give priority to the women lacrosse [players] and then in the next three to five years I think we are going to be in a position to also introduce a menâs lacrosse team,â Nikias said.
The juxtaposition could not be more clear. Public universities are reeling from this deficit. They are struggling to maintain their rich academic tradition while keeping the cash cow â the athletic department â alive.
When a conflict rises between academics and athletics, almost every time academics win out. This year, UC Davis eliminated four out of its 27 sports as it struggled to stop the bleeding caused by the budget deficit. Itâs sad that it has come down to slashing the universitiesâ pride and joy, but when Cal cuts its menâs rugby team, you know the situation is dire.
Conversely, private schools arenât affected as much by the budget crises as public universities are. The state funded 22 percent of Calâs budget last year as opposed to 40 percent just 10 years ago, and Cal Chancellor Robert Birgeneau said the university canât go much lower than that. However, that number is still much higher than what private schools rely on from the state â nothing.
On the other hand, Â private schools are able to survive in this economy because of higher tuition â the in-state tuition cost at Cal rose above $10,000 this year for the first time â and strong endowments.
That money transfers over to athletics. With public universities cutting sports, many athletes will look to the private schools for a more stable program. The women planning to play lacrosse for Calâs team, which finished third in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation last year, might look to play at USC instead. The same is true with the schoolâs baseball players.
The catch is that, with limited scholarships, some of the Californian athletes that have flourished on public university sports teams in years past with minimal scholarships or even as walk-ons might not be able to afford the tuition of a Stanford or USC. Talented players that made a career because they could afford the four-digit tuition at Cal might never make it to such a high collegiate level these days, which is the biggest disappointment of all.
Donât get me wrong. This isnât an âI go to USC so USC is betterâ column. Far from it. But itâs undeniable; as the two recent moves show, private California universities such as USC and Stanford will start to suffocate public schools in athletics if the budget shortfall continues because they will be able to better fund their athletic departments.
Cal became the first high-profile school in California to cut high-profile programs. Where will it end?
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