Lowell Cohn: University of California system afraid to raise academic standards for athletes

The University of California almost did something important. The regents almost tied coach salaries to academic performance at UC campuses.|

The University of California almost did something important.

The regents almost tied coach salaries to academic performance at UC campuses. That includes Berkeley, UCLA, the full schmear of campuses in the great, elite, praiseworthy University of California system.

The regents decided to table the proposal, to engage in more discussions. They are afraid of unforeseen consequences. This caution is reasonable. Coaches, wanting to get salary bonuses, could steer student-athletes to Mickey Mouse courses and majors, and that would defeat the whole purpose.

Also, the initial standard UC adopted was so low it would be meaningless. Gov. Jerry Brown was particularly skeptical of the low standard and said it distorts the essence of university education which, surprise, is to educate.

Brown is correct. He understands the idea of standards. Not just any old standards. High standards. This is the University of California we’re talking about, for heaven’s sake.

One regent voiced his opinion. His name is Eddie Island, a retired lawyer with a distinguished curriculum vitae. He is a talented man and no doubt a great guy, but his opinion is whacked-out, wrongheaded and irresponsible. Unfortunately, it is an opinion many people share.

Cautioning against raising academic standards for student-athletes at UC campuses, Island said, “Raising that bar too high suggests we don’t understand properly the role of athletics for students from communities in distress. A college degree is not the goal of every athlete that comes to the university. They come for the athletics. They get an opportunity to leave their communities and come to a great university. They get mentoring and tutoring. That it does not result in a college degree is not necessarily a bad thing.”

FYI, this quote comes from the Chronicle. One assumes the writer quoted Island correctly. My goodness.

Let’s see if we understand Island. Student-athletes at UC in general come for the athletics - the fun and games - and not for the learning. Island thinks that’s good. He clearly says a college degree is overrated, although he himself has a college degree and a law degree.

Not everyone needs to attend college or get a college degree. Of course not. But to assume athletes aren’t capable of academic success is patronizing to say the least. If a university regent doesn’t expect high standards from athletes, why would athletes expect high standards from themselves? They would live down to expectations. If Island thought more of student-athletes they might think more of themselves.

People who attend college should get a degree. Or at least try. A degree is a good thing in itself and it helps with future employment - and that applies to the majority of student-athletes who don’t turn pro. And a degree signifies something else.

It shows you made the grade, met the standard, did all the work and came out just fine. It shows you worked hard and earned the cap and gown and the piece of paper with Latin writing on it. It shows Berkeley or UCLA or UC Santa Cruz and the other schools certify your attendance and your excellence. It shows the University of California stands behind you, endorses you. It shows the standard matters to society.

All that is wonderful and important. It is not wonderful to play basketball and leave school after two years as Russell Westbrook did at UCLA. He came to college thinking of UCLA, a great school, as a minor league that would propel him to the Oklahoma City Thunder. It is his good fortune to be in the NBA, but he cheapened the idea of a university, used UCLA as a showcase for his basketball talent.

Island thinks this is appropriate, but he is dead wrong. The NBA should have its own minor league and stop poaching students from college, students who aren’t really students. A certain class of student-athletes consists of fraudulent students, putting in their time, going through the charade. Island has no problem with this.

My son went to UCLA. One day he was walking to class. Walking the other way was a basketball player, now in the NBA, who was enrolled in the same class. “Hey, (insert student-athlete’s name here), you’re going the wrong way,” my son said.

“He just laughed,” my son told me. “I took it to mean, ‘Really? You don’t get it?’?”

It is annoying and fraudulent when Tiger Woods identifies himself as a Stanford man or Jason Kidd tries to own Cal. Show us the degree.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton have degrees from UCLA and are proud of their degrees. Steve Young has two degrees. Joe Montana and Jim Plunkett are college graduates. So are Andrew Luck and Richard Sherman. Kevin Love doesn’t have his degree from UCLA.

Eddie Island said something else about student-athletes that raises eyebrows. “They get an opportunity to leave their communities and come to a great university.”

Well, it’s debatable if they’re actually at the great university. Were Westbrook and Love part of the UCLA community? Or were they just passing through, athletes posing as students, confined to the gym? You tell me.

Island thinks just being on campus is beneficial, takes certain young people out of distressed communities. And he may be right.

Excuse me, but is it the role of a university to serve as a kind of halfway house for athletes? I never heard this is the mission of college. If an athlete wants the college experience in the short term, let him/her attend community college, lately endorsed by President Obama. Community colleges are cheap, they have the college atmosphere and they have teams.

But the top echelon of student-athletes doesn’t attend community colleges because they want to be at high-visibility schools to enhance their pro chances. This is not the purpose of UC.

Dan Guerrero, athletic director at UCLA, got into the argument. He said if coaches’ pay is tied to academic performance, “They might also feel pressure to recruit students who are better scholars than athletes.”

Wouldn’t that be a tragedy? The whole point is to recruit athletes who meet eligibility requirements - including at UCLA. The point is to choose student-athletes from the available student population - NOT to bring in ringers.

I’ll tell you what this whole debate is really about. People like Guerrero, people with a vested interest in college sports, are afraid to raise academic standards. If they do, talented athletes would go to other schools with lower standards. This is an argument about self-interest. Period.

UC can do better than that.

For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at

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