Why intercollegiate athletics matter: a Q&A with John Wilton

A new poster captures the essence of Vice Chancellor John Wilton’s recent paper on the vital role that intercollegiate athletics plays at UC Berkeley. And in a Q&A below, Wilton talks about why he feels this information is so important to the campus community. The paper also is linked below.  

Click on this image to see the full-size version of this visual representation of Intercollegiate Athletics at Berkeley.

Click on this image to see the full-size version of this poster depicting  Intercollegiate Athletics at Berkeley.

Q:  Your paper “Some Thoughts on Intercollegiate Athletics” offers an interesting perspective on the role and value of an intercollegiate athletics (IA) program at an institution like UC Berkeley. What motivated you to write it?

John Wilton: I was reading an interview with Olympic gold medalist Missy Franklin about why she decided to come to Berkeley. She said she wanted to attend a university that would challenge her as much as the swimmers she competes against. She also wanted to be part of a diverse, well-grounded community. Her comments made me think about how narrow — and often how wrong — the public narrative is that surrounds our intercollegiate athletics program.

Many people don’t realize that our IA program is fundamentally about excellence, access and diversity. I wanted to help them understand how Berkeley’s IA programs support our public mission and dispel some of the misconceptions surrounding IA finances.

Q:  What do you see as the most common misperceptions regarding intercollegiate athletics in general, and the Berkeley program in particular?

JW: There are many common misperceptions. People often believe that central campus budgetary support is linked to football or the new facilities. In reality, central campus funding and revenues from sports like football and basketball allow us to offer a comprehensive IA program, including women’s sports, which often don’t generate enough revenue to cover their costs. Even if Title IX didn’t exist, our fundamental values of diversity and access would commit us to offering men and women equal opportunities, but we need central campus support in order to offer these programs.

Some Thoughts on Intercollegiate Athletics

“At its core, our IA program is fundamentally about excellence, access, and diversity.”

Read more from Vice Chancellor-Administration John Wilton’s paper.

People also think that the level of IA support is significant in the context of the overall financial challenges confronting Berkeley. When viewed from a purely financial standpoint, central campus support for IA is relatively small. If you take taxes into account, IA programs covered about 94 percent of their expenses last year.  In addition, some believe that IA has a negative impact on the overall resources available to Berkeley to support research and teaching, but if one asks those actually responsible for development and the donors themselves, it appears that IA has a significant positive impact on philanthropy for academic programs. In fact, when philanthropy is factored into the equation, IA generates a positive return to campus academic programs.

Another common misconception is that Berkeley’s level of budgetary support is higher than other Division I universities or Ivy League schools, but a 2011 study found that Berkeley’s IA program had the second lowest cost per student athlete.

Q: Given that campus support for IA at Berkeley accounts for less than one-tenth of 1 percent of our operating budget, why do you think there has been so much focus on financial issues in recent years?

JW: I think the attention comes from the expense of the new IA facilities, the misunderstanding of the financial dynamics and the relatively small level of gross central budgetary support — all in the context of the large, erratic and ill-advised reduction in state support for higher education and particularly the UC system. At Berkeley, we are developing new, sustainable ways to support IA programs and pay for the facilities that our student-athletes require. One illustration of this effort is the initiative to turn the California Memorial Stadium into a multiuse facility housing academic programs from many of our schools as well providing additional recreational sports facilities to all our students.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to point out? 

I wish people would focus on those drivers of revenue and costs that are having a real impact. The diversion of effort is a monumental waste of scarce resources. I believe we must have a transparent, informed conversation about the role of IA and its financial model if we are to maintain what Berkeley achieves and what we stand for.