Long-term Future of NCAA Sports Remains in Flux

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Women’s basketball coach Todd Kent wakes up at 6 a.m. to get to his office so he can spend the morning preparing for games. He drives his team to Los Angeles, coaches a game, then gets on the bus back to Santa Cruz. After dropping the players off at their houses, he gets home at 5 a.m. — not a rare occurrence for Kent during his five-year coaching career at UC Santa Cruz.

On March 28, UCSC announced a temporary budget augmentation for NCAA programs potentially through 2017. The NCAA budget will increase the $225,000 funding for the 14 teams to $800,000 and is effective immediately. The money will be used to hire two additional athletic trainers, increase head and assistant coaches’ pay — including better medical benefits — and provide safer travel, so trips like Kent’s will be avoided by spending the night in a hotel instead of driving home late.

“[The budget increase] is a decision that should have been made 30 years ago,” Kent said. “But I’m a little concerned they are going to transfer that responsibility over to the students in a few years.”

In spring 2015 a student referendum will be proposed for approximately $50 per year in order to fund NCAA teams at UCSC in the long term. If this measure passes, the augmentation by the university will end immediately, and student fees will make up the difference and support the NCAA programs. If it does not pass, the university will “need to take an honest look at our participation in NCAA sports” said executive vice chancellor (EVC) Alison Galloway in a press release.

“Even if the students don’t support such a measure, we believe we owe it to current and prospective student-athletes to know the teams will exist — at this new, higher level of support — for at least another three years,” EVC Galloway said.

Currently a $5 per quarter fee paid for by all undergraduates and graduate students funds the NCAA teams, which is the lowest in the UC system. This fee was passed in 2007 and has no set end date. NCAA teams at most UCs are funded by the university, but the next lowest student fee is at UC Merced, which generates $150 per student.

Athletic director Kim Musch stresses the proposed student fee is for the “bare bones” of NCAA teams. It will keep the new additions from this quarter’s budget increase intact over the span of the referendum that remains in the works.

“It’s not like we’re asking the students to come up with hundreds and hundreds of dollars so we can start a football team. It’s not like we’re asking them to make our coaches the highest paid coaches at the Division III level, because we are still at the bottom,” Musch said. “All we’re doing is we’re coming in and asking the students for the absolute minimal amount we really need to run a department, keep coaches and travel safely.”

Kent agrees, and said this is a move only to make NCAA teams a “functional and viable entity on campus.” He notes a California Division III competitor — Claremont McKenna College — and its $4.5 million athletic budget as a counterpoint to UCSC’s new budget, which would remain under $1 million.

“They are not giving us any types of perks whatsoever,” Kent said. “We are still going to be underpaid compared to other coaches, and we are still going to be underfunded compared to other teams.”

Musch said if the measure does not pass, there isn’t a “plan B” yet, and the university would most likely begin to phase out its athletic programs over the following two years.

“I can’t imagine that happening,” Musch said, “and it could. It’s scary.”

He said this temporary increase is “buying time,” and that a lot can change in three years, when the university will stop funding NCAA teams. Former UCSC water polo player and alumna Jennifer Gunnell knows firsthand what it’s like to be on a NCAA team that’s being phased out. Men’s and women’s water polo was converted to a club team in 2009, due to a lack of fundraising in conjunction with the combined $40,000 stipend.

“It’s a completely different experience,” Gunnell said. “My freshman year [on the NCAA team] was a little more carefree and we were able to be better students and better athletes. If you have to fight the administration to do something you love, it makes it a lot harder to do it.”

As she experienced both the NCAA and club team’s struggle to make ends meet financially, Gunnell said she hopes students support the upcoming referenda because of the “tangible” benefits from NCAA sports and the camaraderie it brings. However, she said it should not be the students’ responsibility to fund athletics programs.

Grunnell would not have attended UCSC if there were not NCAA sports, and now as a law student at UCLA, she realizes even more why athletics are beneficial to a university.

“[UCLA’s] a bigger school, but it’s a tighter community,” Grunnell said. “Having a common goal, something to root for, is what makes it a tight community. UCSC has such an amazing student body, but sports are something that really binds people together.”

Junior basketball player Leah Parrish said the current NCAA players’ job is protecting future UCSC athletes.

“The responsiblity to fund NCAA teams shouldn’t fall on the students, but we’ll take any help we can get,” Parrish said. “Everyone seems really positive right now, but we need to make any effort to get students to like us before the vote next year.”

Kent said athletics is stronger than it has ever been with the modified budget. With constant inquires about how his low salary translates into successful seasons, his answer remains the same — UCSC coaches’ persistent dedication to their teams.

“I just don’t believe it is going to happen,” Kent said, referencing NCAA sports getting phased out. “The university is going to step up and find a way to make it happen, and the students are going to find a way to help.”