Shellie Onstead, the California Golden Bears women's field hockey coach, was anxiously watching the Cal football team defend its second-quarter lead over the Tennessee Volunteers when she got a text message: Legendary ABC Sports announcer Brent Musburger had just mentioned her team on national television.
The sideline reporter at the September 1 home opener was interviewing a top Cal official about the cramped training facilities for student-athletes, and the university's fight with the city of Berkeley over plans for a new building. Musburger said he had experienced the tight quarters firsthand. "The women's field hockey team kicked me out of a meeting the other day," he told his national audience from the booth. "They needed some place to get their act together."
UC Berkeley is locked in a legal battle with the city, the California Oaks Foundation, and the Panoramic Hill Association, a neighborhood group, over plans to renovate the 84-year-old Memorial Stadium and build a $125 million high-performance athletic center. A trial to determine the fate of the latter began on September 19 in Alameda County Superior Court. Among the key issues are earthquake safety and environmental concerns, and critics also often cast the training facility as a multimillion-dollar spending spree for the school's football program.
But the university says the true beneficiaries will be a baker's dozen of other Cal athletic programs from field hockey to lacrosse that never make the national spotlight. At one of the nation's top public universities, scores of student-athletes are compelled to use their cars as locker rooms, compete for medical attention, and undress in full view of athletes of the opposite sex. "When our practice coincides with football, it's like a well-choreographed ballet in the training room," Onstead says. She later adds: "Brent Musburger was prompted to comment about our facilities on TV after experiencing what we have to go through every single day."
At the proposed training center, each of the thirteen teams would have its own locker room space. They would also have a shared dining area and top-notch medical facilities capable of performing X-rays, MRIs, and blood tests plus on-site nutritionists and sports psychologists.
It's not the amenities that trouble the opposition, but the training center's proposed location next to the Hayward Fault, which geologists consider to be the Bay Area fault most likely to experience a major earthquake in the next thirty years. Construction would also require the removal of 42 trees in the oak grove west of the stadium, where tree-sitting protesters and university police have created a national, Berkeley-style sideshow. "The majority of our group would say that we support Cal athletes all the teams should have state-of-the-art facilities,'' said Jerry Wachtel, president of the Panoramic Hill Association, which represents the upscale neighborhood overlooking the stadium. "There are many places where they could build the athletic center."
The current medical and training facility under the northwest section of Memorial Stadium's bleachers was designed to accommodate one hundred student athletes. Today, an estimated 350 rely on the archaic setup for weight training, physical therapy, medical exams, and team meetings. As a result, Cal ranks dead last in the Pac-10 in strength and conditioning space provided to its athletes it has just over ten square feet per person, roughly a third of the space available to the average Pac-10 athlete.
Most of the teams using the stadium don't have access to a locker room. For Onstead's field hockey team, that means changing at home, in their cars, or in a cramped women's bathroom next to the training room.
Women's lacrosse uses the visiting football team's locker room most of year, but is forced to pack up and leave on Fridays before home football games. According to head coach Theresa Sherry, the locker room is putrid. "None of the girls even shower in there," she says. "It's disgusting. They have one or two shower heads and it doesn't even get hot."
Without their own facilities, female athletes often have to undress in front of male football or rugby players to get their injuries explored and wrapped in the training room. "If you have a groin injury, you could be very exposed in front of the football players," says Danni Zuralow, a senior lacrosse player. "If you need to get wrapped, you are in your underwear. It can be really awkward. Some girls go to the bathroom to get wrapped, or go into a corner."
The plan's critics are not only sympathetic, Wachtel says, but many are also Cal boosters, faculty, and alumni.
Some of them have suggested the center be built next to Edwards Stadium, the track and soccer facility on Bancroft Avenue, a half-mile downhill from Memorial Stadium. The teams don't much like that idea, though. Rachel "Rocky" Moffitt, a junior field hockey player, opines that it's unreasonable to expect an injured athlete to walk fifteen minutes to get wrapped or iced. "You wouldn't know what it's like unless you'd trained and practiced up here," she says. "You'd have to experience it yourself."
Wachtel also suggests that the football team could play home games off-campus at Oakland's McAfee Coliseum, much as UCLA uses the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. But such a plan is likely to create a huge uproar among students and alumni, who treasure the vibe of having their stadium close at hand.
The players on Cal's lesser-known teams certainly want the proposed center to stay put. "As a senior I've experienced a lot of things," Zuralow says. "We deserve this. We put all of our passion, all of our heart into this. We should have a facility that accommodates us."