Family History

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If you’d ever been to Spenger’s, an old school fish place at the foot of University Avenue in Berkeley, you’d know it. There wasn’t anywhere else like it on earth much less in town.

3. entrance

It was among the few spots Cal students would go with their parents and have an okay time and feel comfortable about the experience. It was an after-game destination for generations upon generations of Bay Area families. It was a hangout for some students and a place for a special occasion for others. It was a place you could take a professor to lunch without breaking the bank (even if you did have a drink or two at the bar while waiting for a table) and without feeling too weird about it.

I once shared an unforgettable meal with history professor Bill Slottman and fellow student Jim Crosby. If you knew either Bill or Jim (or, God forbid, both), you may already be seeing in your mind’s eye what kind of experience that likely was. To say it was both hilarious and insane is an understatement of colossal proportion.

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But for our family, the place had an even longer history and deeper experience.

In the spring of 1941, my dad graduated from high school and entered the California Maritime Academy, in Vallejo, just up the bay from Berkeley, with the intention of becoming a maritime engineer, as his dad was. In December of that year, of course, those plans, and the plans of many other young men changed. The academy accelerated its course, to provide the American fleet with the many new officers it would need to fight the Second World War. Things around the place got really intense and really serious.

One night, my dad and a buddy had a night of leave, and ventured down to Berkeley to find some fun, or trouble, or whatever sailors at liberty do, and happened to pop into Spenger’s. They met a couple of girls and the boys were looking so good in their uniforms, and everyone was just so patriotic and, you know, one thing led to another and, the next thing they knew, according to my dad, the last bus back to Vallejo was gone, without them.

During wartime, such things as missing muster carry extreme penalties.

The boys began to sob and rend their garments and Mr. Spenger, himself an old salt, took notice. He knew, by God, the serious dutch these guys were in, so he lent them one of his fishing boats to get back to the academy, which they gratefully accepted.

As a result of Mr. Spenger’s generosity and trust, no cadet blood was spilt.

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My beloved Erika played in the Cal Band while an undergrad. After every home game, her family would travel up from Fresno to watch her and the Golden Bears play, then adjourn, post-game, to Spenger’s for a meal, some drinks and other traditional merriment.

That last part often included her dad Dwight jumping up on a table with his buddy Gary and leading the place in Cal cheers. I’m told no blood was spilt on those occasions either.

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The place meant so much to us and our families as a place of singular memories that Erika and I made Spenger our son’s middle name.

True story.

 

 

 

Big-Time College Sports: Time to Kill or Be Killed

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It was a running joke my uncle the priest came to tell his parishioners every Super Bowl Sunday, especially during those years the hometown 49ers were so often represented in the NFL’s championship game. “I will work quickly and end early today,” he’d quip, “so you can get to the worship of America’s real national religion, football.”

And, as is the case for all good humor, his foundation wasn’t that far from the truth. Professional sport has become a well-loved and financially well-supported industry in this country. But even as big money can, God knows, create good entertainment, it also has the potential to twist and corrupt. If you’ve been paying attention to either news or sports recently, that can’t be any kind of surprise at all.

Potential corruption of pros by professional-scale money is one thing – we’d almost expect there to be some toxic spillover in for-profit entertainment enterprises – but the effects of big-time sports money on amateur sport is something else again. The money that’s come to American colleges and universities from running sports entertainment businesses has had seriously pernicious effects on what are still (nominally, at least) institutions of higher learning.

Here’s a table showing the top 20 sports revenue-producing institutions of higher learning, as of 2008. [Note how many of the top 20 are public and, therefore, publicly-funded institutions.] This is serious dough. Just to get some sense of this scale, the top performers on this list make about as much in revenue as tech-sector stand-outs like Pandora and LinkedIn.

Rank Team Total Revenue
1 Alabama

123,769,841

2 Texas

120,288,370

3 Ohio State

115,737,022

4 Florida

106,607,895

5 Tennessee

101,806,196

6 Michigan

99,027,105

7 Oklahoma State

98,874,092

8 Wisconsin

95,118,124

9 Texas A&M

92,476,146

10 Penn State

91,570,233

11 Auburn

89,311,824

12 Georgia

85,554,395

13 LSU

85,018,205

14 Notre Dame

83,352,439

15 Kansas

82,976,047

16 Iowa

81,515,865

17 Michigan

81,390,686

18 Oklahoma

77,098,008

19 Stanford

76,661,466

20 USC

76,409,919

[Source: ESPN, 2008]

This kind of money drives distorting behaviors. And to protect this revenue stream, significant measures are often taken. As just one example, the University of Maryland recently paid $2 million to buy out the contract of its football coach (then carrying a losing win-loss record), then hire a new coach for an annual salary of an additional $2 million. In outlining his rationale for making these moves, the university’s president, Wallace Loh, asserted his belief that, “intercollegiate athletics is an integral part of the college educational experience and not only commercialized mass entertainment.” [Source: Forbes]

Baylor Bears vs. Kansas Jayhawks - January 16, 2012

In 2010, the 44 public universities with teams in the 5 most established athletic conferences (e.g., PAC-12, Big Ten) paid their head football coaches an average salary of over $2 million, well above the average salary of anyone else on campus [Source: Wall Street Journal], much less those who actually deliver on schools’ educational mission, the faculty.

Investment in big-time athletics might pay off for their host institutions financially, but data show the academic returns are mixed. At one time, student-athletes (the very name sounds anachronistic today) participated in revenue-producing and spirit-building athletics in exchange for the promise of a college degree. As big-time sports programs rake in the cash, and many athletes have come to focus almost exclusively on athletics and bail out of college early to join their sports’ professional ranks, that notion is being re-examined.

In fact, there is a large gap between the academic achievement levels of student-athletes and their non-athletic counterparts at many schools. So, in reality, where is the benefit promised players? This calls into question whether schools running big-time sports programs are unfairly and handsomely benefitting from labor that is essentially free, and many have called for student-athletes to be paid. The schools with the largest difference in graduation rates between athletes (football players, in this case) and non-athletes, including, in the top position, to my shame, one of my beloved alma maters, are listed in the table, below.

Difference in Graduation Rates Between Football Players and All Students
Major Programs

 

Football Players

All Students

Difference

California

54%

90%

-36%

UCLA

59%

90%

-31%

USC

61%

87%

-26%

Virginia

68%

93%

-25%

Georgia Tech

55%

79%

-24%

Texas

57%

79%

-22%

Maryland

59%

81%

-22%

BYU

57%

78%

-21%

Texas A&M

59%

79%

-20%

Michigan

71%

89%

-18%

Clemson

62%

78%

-16%

Oklahoma

48%

63%

-15%

Florida St.

56%

71%

-15%

North Carolina St.

56%

71%

-15%

Wisconsin

66%

81%

-15%

Duke University economist (and a former teacher of mine) Charles Clotfelter, wrote a book about the conundrum this kind of imbalance presents to America’s colleges. Unsurprisingly, he finds deep unease. Derek Bok, former president of Harvard, thinks sports an expensive side-show for schools: “Educational institutions have absolutely no business operating farm systems for the benefit of the National Football League and the National Basketball Association.” James Duderstadt, the University of Michigan’s former president agrees: “Big-time college athletics has little to do with the nature or objectives of the contemporary university. Instead, it is a commercial venture, aimed primarily at providing public entertainment.”

Educational institutions running big-time sports programs bear great risks. They reap potentially huge revenues from their programs that reward activities not part of their core educational purpose. Priorities are skewed. While academic programs starve, state-of-the-art athletic facilities are built and coaches wallow in cash. Other than coaches, the main beneficiaries of these sports programs are professional football and basketball leagues, who harvest generation after generation of athletes trained and polished at mostly public expense. Furthermore, these schools benefit from the free labor of their students, who are not allowed to accept income and, increasingly, do not even benefit academically from their work.

A well-known and successful college basketball coach talked about his program’s essential independence from his host institution (not to mention his own obvious disdain for academic authority): “We’re not even really part of the school anymore, anyway…you think the chancellor is going to tell me what to do?” [Source: New York Times]

In the long run, this is an unsustainable situation. Colleges must get out of the big-time sports entertainment business if they are to keep alive any hope of fulfilling their educational missions. In the end, these enterprises are not worthy of the institutions these programs still (nominally) represent.

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Public Works

Outside of our home, here’s what most of my young life looked like: libraries, schools, playgrounds and parks. To be more specific, public libraries, public schools, public playgrounds and public parks.

I grew up about ten blocks from two public libraries. The librarians – there were several – seemed to love having kids around. They took time to show us books, of course, but also how to look, how to use the card catalog (Anyone still remember those?), how to look through magazines and newspapers. There were author programs – a very fine kids’ author, Marilyn Sachs lived in our neighborhood – cultural events, a chess club, reading groups, and many more features that made for a healthy and robust community of young thinkers.

I attended public schools from kindergarten through college. My state was among the top 3 in per student spending for K-12 education when I was of school age. We had many experienced, engaged and talented teachers, books that were ample and new each year, school supplies, enrichment programs, music programs, art programs, school libraries, PE, special events, like spring festivals, up-to-date AV equipment. Once I got to high school, my school offered instruction in French, German, Italian and Spanish. We had several interscholastic athletic teams every season, a school play each semester, frequent musical events. Our science labs were well stocked. I was fortunate to attend my state’s university for a little less than $600 per year in tuition.

I lived across the street from a very well used playground – tennis and basketball courts, athletic equipment, a special play area for littler kids, art classes, a program of day-trips, a professional staff.

A huge urban park was only half a block away. It had a lake with boats for rent, baseball diamonds, a full track, football fields, open meadows, walking trails, horse rentals, a world class fine art museum, a natural history museum, open-air band concerts, a Japanese tea garden, several playgrounds, an animal farm, public art, a working antique carousel.

Almost everything about my experience as a youth told me it meant something special to be a part of my city, my state. I came to understand through that living, breathing, personal experience, then, the very concept of citizenship. I had a clear understanding of what government provided its citizens. I received education, enrichment, socialization, physical fitness, recreation.

Expensive to build and run? Without question. But what did my hometown get in return?

Generations of good, well educated, civic-minded, committed citizens.

When I hear people say they want government out of their lives, I can only assume they haven’t had the same experiences I’ve had. I would hate to think they were self-serving, hypocritical and cynical enough to criticize and even kill the very institutions that gave them such advantage in life.