California budget woes hurt athletics

Everyone knows it. The state of California is a mess. Voters can’t 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.

Ready to launch · Senior goalie Madison Aguirre throws the ball after making a stop. USC President C.L. Max Nikias said last week that women’s lacrosse will be added as a Division I sport, an announcement coming on the heels of Cal’s decision to cut five varsity sports because of funding issues. - Photo courtesy of women’s lacrosse

Oh yeah, then there’s that $20-billion state budget deficit. Unfortunately, the Governator can’t 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, women’s lacrosse and the most successful men’s rugby program in the country, which has won 25 national championships since 1980.

The cuts will reduce the university’s 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 women’s 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.

“We are in the process of recruiting the coach for the team and then we will make the announcement,” Nikias said. “Lacrosse is becoming very popular. It’s more popular in the East Coast, but now it is becoming more and more popular in the West Coast.”

But Nikias didn’t stop there. He said that after a women’s team is added, more Division I sports could be coming.

“I 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 men’s lacrosse team,” 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 — the athletic department — 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. It’s sad that it has come down to slashing the universities’ pride and joy, but when Cal cuts its men’s rugby team, you know the situation is dire.

Conversely, private schools aren’t affected as much by the budget crises as public universities are. The state funded 22 percent of Cal’s budget last year as opposed to 40 percent just 10 years ago, and Cal Chancellor Robert Birgeneau said the university can’t go much lower than that. However, that number is still much higher than what private schools rely on from the state — nothing.

On the other hand,  private schools are able to survive in this economy because of higher tuition — the in-state tuition cost at Cal rose above $10,000 this year for the first time — 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 Cal’s 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 school’s 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.

Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t an “I go to USC so USC is better” column. Far from it. But it’s 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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