Here is a link to my Sunday column about the academic-sports scandal at Cal Berkeley. The full text appears below.
Stanford is better than Cal.
Stanford may not be a better university than Cal — then again it may be better. But when it comes to dealing with its football and basketball players, when it comes to fulfilling its mission to develop student-athletes, Stanford makes Cal look like some rinky-dink community college from the desert somewhere.
This is another way of saying a scandal-fueled controversy is raging across the Cal campus right now. Stanford never would face such an embarrassing, mind-blowing scandal over its football and basketball teams, never in a million years.
Stanford is better than Cal.
What I just wrote sounds biased, like I prefer Stanford to Cal. Sure I do. I went to Stanford for six years, 1966-1972, in the English Department and earned a Master’s and Ph.D. there. I love Stanford. You should know that. I also know how the place works. You should know that, too.
The current scandal at Cal involves graduation rates — the GSR. According to numbers from the NCAA, Cal ranks dead last in the Pac-12 in football and basketball. Dead last.
Stanford, of course, ranks first. I’m proud Stanford ranks first, but it’s what I expect and demand. I am sad Cal ranks last — my wife and stepson are Cal graduates and I admire that institution, generally considered the best public university in our nation.
These graduation numbers reflect the period 2003 through 2006, and Cal swears it’s making corrections. And I believe Cal is making corrections, like firing football coach Jeff Tedford who let things go down the toilet academically. I mean, this is Cal with all its Nobel laureates, for heaven’s sake. This is not (name the school) which is a feeder to the NFL, a minor-league team posing as a college squad, rah-rah and all that.
Shame on Cal.
I want to tell you how Stanford operates. I worked my way through Stanford as a graduate student by teaching Freshman English. Year after year, I taught Freshman English to those brilliant, innocent, eager 18-year-olds. One of my students was a handsome, smart, charming young black man named Jackie Brown. We had a class of about 15 and we sat around a conference table in a well-lit classroom in the undergraduate library. And week after week, Jackie read the stuff — Gide, Camus, Conrad — and debated in class with the others and wrote essays to die for.
Jackie was with me the entire year — the whole class was — and one day someone said that Jackie had played a good game. I had no idea what this person was talking about. I was deep into my studies and my teaching, and had taken a break from sports.
So, I said something like, “What game?” And this person looked at me like I was from Jupiter and told me Jackie was the halfback on the Stanford football team.
You don’t say.
Turns out Jackie was one heck of a running back. Twice his team won the Rose Bowl. He ran for two touchdowns against Ohio State in the 1971 Rose Bowl and one TD against Michigan in the 1972 Rose Bowl. And here’s the point. No one from the Stanford administration ever took me aside and told me who Jackie was and to take it easy on him. No way. He was a student in my class, nothing more, nothing less, and he was expected — required — to be a student.
Jackie graduated with a degree in history and then went to Stanford law school. Not bad. He currently is a lawyer in Washington, D.C. We spoke on the phone just the other day, an old teacher talking to his student from long ago.
“Jackie, did your coaches treat you more like a student or an athlete?“
“Probably equally, athlete and student. I felt there was a good balance. It’s why I came there in the first place. I was lucky. I was happy with my education. When I was there, I was not just an anomaly. I was par for the course. I was student body president in high school, but everybody else had stuff like that.
“Miles Moore, a cornerback and wide receiver, had been his high school student body president and so was fullback Hillary Shockley. We were black and we were student body presidents. The good thing about Stanford, it was kind of expected. I was average. The new normal was humbling.”
Did Jackie take education seriously?
“A lot of us went on to grad school — med school, law school. Check this out. As I remember it, on the football team, the percentage who went on to grad school was higher than the average for the student body. It was a good environment to grow in and mature. I didn’t have to make excuses for being smart. No one put you down because you studied. You took a trip on a bus or plane and you studied. It was expected. I spent Friday nights in the library.
“I liked the fact that my professors may not have known I was an athlete. I competed with the rest of the class. Some professors took offense if you were an athlete. They were going to show they wouldn’t give you any favors, and they made it harder for you. I had a varsity jacket but I wouldn’t wear it to class. Instead of getting me favors, it would get me disfavors.”
How did the coaches treat the football players?
“The coaches didn’t always know how to handle a Stanford group. But they did not get in the way. We had a lot of guys who went to overseas campuses. It would be two quarters and when you’d go, it would conflict with spring camp. You’d come back after missing spring. It was a big deal. The coaches had to eat that. We would let our hair grow and show up like that. The coaches had to live with it. And they did, to their credit.”
Years after I taught Jackie, I wrote a book about Bill Walsh’s return to Stanford. I spent a season with Stanford football players — John Lynch, Steve Stenstrom — and, yes, they were studious and deep-thinking and, forgive me here, I felt they were smarter than the coaches, for the most part.
What’s the point of all this? Stanford makes it clear to its football and basketball players — to all its athletes — the first priority is to be a student. There is no doubt. It is as basic as breathing and brushing your teeth.
I assume Cal football and basketball players breathe and brush their teeth. They also need to study.
For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at cohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at lowell.cohn.pressdemocrat.com.