Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Cal Athletics: Playing without a playbook

By Sam Davis


I am a CAL athletics fan and supporter, and a season ticket holder for basketball and football for over 40 years. I have recruited athletes for several sports, and have served as faculty chair of the Athletic Study Center, on a search committee for an athletic director, and on the building committee for Haas Pavilion. In my 40 years of teaching among my best students were athletes.

Yet I keep asking myself, what would compel Cal’s Department of Intercollegiate Athletics to allow elite athletes to train in an unsafe facility, or continue to tolerate mediocre facilities for female athletics while they improve those for men?

To answer these questions, you need to follow the money, but not the athletics facilities plan that did not exist until recently, and is now ignored.

In the absence of a plan, decisions for new or upgraded facilities are either a response to an unforeseen emergency, or a valued donor who wants to support a particular sport. Examples: Memorial Stadium was designated a seismic risk, and a major renovation ensued; two prominent donors wanted to build an aquatics training facility, and now it is underway.

In 2013, I was retained by the Physical and Environmental Planning Department and Intercollegiate Athletics to prepare an athletics facilities master plan in order to bring a more thoughtful and disciplined approach to facility development. During this yearlong effort, I held workshops and interviews with coaches, studied the existing sports venues, looked at those on other campuses, and developed a set of priorities for upgrading facilities for this campus. In the last two years the campus has spent over $30 million on athletic facilities, but nothing for the two highest priorities established in the plan.

Money rules

It is no secret that money drives college sports. Why else but TV revenue would we play the Big Game at night, or play other football games on Thursday or Friday nights? Money skews judgment, and the desire for more of it compels decisions that may help one sport, but creates problems or inequities for others. Basing decisions on money alone limits development options for a campus like ours with little opportunity or ability to expand.

Let’s take the new aquatics complex as an example. Intercollegiate athletes (men’s and women’s swimming and water polo teams) share the Spieker Aquatics complex adjacent to Haas Pavilion with non-athlete Cal students. Providing these teams the requisite amount of practice time is difficult. Recreational swimmers also like the water warmer than the intercollegiate athletes.

Indeed there are conflicts, yet it worked for some time, and it was not a competitive disadvantage as these teams are very successful.

When the donors came forward to fund a new aquatics complex, the campus was happy to oblige although there were other more pressing needs for Intercollegiate Athletics. First, it wanted to accommodate the generous donors who would not likely give to another departmental program. Second, the campus figured that it would get a new complex without any cost.

On the first point, it is probably true that the donors would not give to another sport, but since there was no master plan at the time and therefore no compelling set of priorities, it is also likely that no other needs were discussed.

On the second point, the facility is not free regardless of the millions provided by the donors. The campus provided one of the most valuable remaining buildable parcels it owns, the parking lot across Bancroft Way from Edwards Stadium. It is relatively flat, adjacent to campus, near downtown, blocks from BART, and was identified in the mandated campus-wide Long Range Development Plan 2020, which was clearly ignored in this case, as a potential high density building site. It could have been the land that accommodated campus-wide needs, including student housing and Campus Shared Services. (see: http://news.berkeley.edu/2015/11/10/the-errors-of-campus-shared-services-were-not-making-widgets/ )   This property may have been worth $10 million or more. And, without an endowment, the campus must now spend significant dollars to maintain this new facility.


The donors of this new aquatics facility are seeking to build yet another pool next to the new complex, a warm up pool that is a requirement for international competitions, thereby using even more of this valuable property.

The Spieker Aquatics Complex is in need of repairs and several studies over the past years examined how the aquatics situation could be improved efficiently using the existing pool. Reconfiguring the complex and perhaps expanding into the adjacent plaza would solve two problems at once. However, the donors insisted on a completely separate facility.

So the campus gets a new aquatics complex because of the generosity of these donors and the willingness of the campus to relinquish valuable land. A stated goal was to provide more pool time for all students. Were that the case, a new pool for Recreational Sports serving the general student population and the community would have been far less expensive than the competition venue underway. What the campus won’t get are the facilities that the Intercollegiate Athletics Master Plan has determined are its highest priorities: a suitable softball facility and a safe venue for gymnastics.

The highest priorities

Softball both practices and plays in Strawberry Canyon at the Levine-Fricke Stadium. The stadium is undersized, the depth of the outfield too shallow for today’s hitters, there are no fan amenities, and there are few on-site training facilities for treating injuries.

These substandard conditions led to an expensive and embarrassing situation in 2011-12 season when the team hosted the NCAA Regional Tournament. The NCAA required more seating, better lighting, and more amenities. These were temporarily assembled at a cost of over $100,000, and the campus was informed that it could not host another tournament until it had an improved facility.

Not long after, Evans Diamond, the venue for baseball, the men’s equivalent, was upgraded with new lighting, a new field surface, and a new scoreboard, all thanks to donors. While these are indeed welcomed improvements, they were not the highest priority, and their inclusion has created a significant inequity between men’s and women’s athletics.

The second highest priority in the master plan is gymnastics. Gymnastics (men’s and women’s) practice in the Golden Bear Center on the Clark Kerr Campus. The gymnasium was once the student workshop for School for the Blind and Deaf and the teams share it with youth programs. It is small, has a ceiling too low for college gymnasts, and has tight column spacing that limits the number and positioning of apparatuses. Most importantly there are no safety pits. The facility limits athletes’ ability to improve their skills without risking injury. Donors have not been forthcoming to improve this situation.

The Rubik’s Cube – move one and all are affected

UC Berkeley is an urban campus with only five sufficiently large fields available for both Intercollegiate Athletics and Recreational Sports which serves all students. When one of these is assigned to a particular user, the current user must relocate. Inequities and undue costs occur due to a lack of thoughtful planning.

The Maxwell Family Field just north of Memorial Stadium was the practice and competition venue for field hockey that shared this field with Recreational Sports. For some time a garage was planned for this site, one that would accommodate new academic uses that never materialized. The planned garage was to be underground.

The campus decided to proceed with the garage, the rationale being that because of the high cost of seat licenses for football, having convenient nearby parking would induce lagging sales. It was also assumed that parking would increase the use of Memorial Stadium for non-football events. The garage, while available to faculty and staff, is privately run and primarily for the public.

To reduce the cost of the garage, it was built above ground, and it now blocks views of the historic stadium and of venerable Bowles Hall. The replacement field on top is also wider than the old field in order to accommodate the new users, lacrosse and the football practice field.

Maxwell photos

This left field hockey without a venue, and the team members threatened a Title IX action claiming that men’s sports were not similarly displaced. The new Maxwell Family Field cannot be used by field hockey because it requires a different type of field surface.

To accommodate field hockey, and ward off the legal action, the campus proceeded to remake Underhill Field between Channing and Haste that was exclusively used by Recreational Sports for intramural team play and informal student sports activities.

The Underhill Field had to be enlarged, and the surface had to be reconstructed to provide the required perfectly flat playing surface that is watered before competition. The garage below was not designed to accommodate these requirements making this no easy or inexpensive remake. The new field cost over $6 million.

This could have been avoided with some planning and forethought. First, had field hockey remained at Maxwell after the completion of the garage, the cost of the new field would have been absorbed within the garage budget. Underhill would still be for use by the general student population. Where then would football and lacrosse hold practice?

The solution is Witter Rugby Field. It is adjacent to the stadium and near the Simpson Student High Performance Center where the teams have headquarters. It had been used for several years as a football practice venue. No improvements for either sport would be required, and therefore no funds expended.

But Witter is not available. Why? Because a high-level administrator entered into a ten-year memorandum of understanding with vocal men’s rugby supporters to make the field available to that sport only. I find it unconscionable that 20 percent of the available field space on campus is controlled by a sport with 60 athletes, all of whom are men.

Time to refocus

The new aquatics complex will cost $16 million. Recent improvements within Haas Pavilion that include a high resolution video board and new sound system cost nearly $10 million, donated by the Haas Fund. These are meant to improve the fan experience, but do little to help the student-athlete. Now I understand that Intercollegiate Athletics is about the spend $2.8 to improve Levine-Fricke Stadium in order to avoid the threat of another Title IX action, this time by softball players. This money will update the venue, but not change the basic configuration as needed.

All together the Department of Intercollegiate Athletics has expended close to $30 million nearly $9 million of which was used to solve problems it had created. None of that money addressed the most pressing needs of the program.

Cal will never be able to compete in the facilities arms war with other Division I programs. Despite generous donors, there is not enough money or space. But it is also a fallacy that we must try. Olympic swimmer Missy Franklin came to Cal for the academics and the coaching, not the pool. Our newest “5-star” recruits in men’s basketball had opportunities to go to schools with separate, fully equipped basketball training facilities. They came here.

While I was working on the Facilities Master Plan, I asked that Intercollegiate Athletics set up the principles that would guide future decisions. Among them were that the health and safety of the student-athlete along with regulatory compliance, particularly gender equity, must be paramount. Another is that efficient operation and shared use of facilities should be key drivers. I believe it is time for the campus to follow its principles.