In a Class of Their Own 

On the football field, Cal has shown it has few equals. But in class, student athletes are separate and unequal.

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Athletes at Stanford fit into the larger academic community. "Because Stanford's stringent admissions standards apply to all sports, everyone on the football team is also a really capable student," trumpeter Holt said. "The football players can sit alongside the bandmembers and talk about Chekhov, as they can with anyone else in the school."

Tony Mirabelli, who coordinates the tutorial program at UC Berkeley's Athletic Study Center, explains the schools' differences as a function of their respective missions. Whereas Cal recruits almost exclusively in California, Stanford can go all over the United States to handpick athletes who also are accomplished students. "So Stanford can come across looking like they have a brilliant athlete population, but they're bringing in a very different athlete," Mirabelli said. "That goes back to the notion of the public university having a duty to serve those who are less privileged."

But in fact, the greatest disparity between the two universities occurs not because Cal is committed to serving the less privileged, but because it has largely stopped doing so. These days, elite Stanford has the much stronger commitment to students of color and the less privileged. African Americans comprise 12.3 percent of the Stanford freshman class, almost twice as large as that group's 6.9 percent share of the California population. Meanwhile, Berkeley's 2004 freshman class included only 112 African Americans out of about 3,700 total students, or barely 3 percent, according to Derek Van Rheenen, who directs the campus' Athletic Study Center. And the UC regents' announcement two months ago that they would raise the school's minimum grade-point average from 2.8 to 3.0 all but ensured that the black population at Cal will continue to decrease.

Before the 1996 passage of Prop. 209, which prohibited racially preferential treatment in academic admissions, only one in every ten black males who came to Cal were scholarship athletes, Van Rheenen said. Now, he adds, the ratio is one in three. Junior cornerback Wale Forrester sarcastically predicts that, within a few years, the only black people on campus will be athletes recruited to play high-revenue sports like football and basketball.

The New Affirmative Action

If your only experience of Berkeley was the Athletic Studies Center in Cal's Cesar Chavez building, you'd think the campus was mixed-up cool. If African-American students motivated primarily by academics are increasingly scarce at Cal, at least black students are still coming to play sports. But UC Berkeley is no longer the bastion of racial diversity it so wants to be. When Forrester first came to the university from West Los Angeles in 2002, he remembers wanting to turn around and go home. It was the first time he'd been the only black student in a classroom.

Athletics is the new affirmative action at Cal. That means that the university's relationship with black men is increasingly based on sports and not academics. This is a troubling development. Take it from me: I tutor the players.

It's not that athletics or athletic tutorial is bad, or that the players are bad students or bad guys. On the contrary, the ones I've tutored are witty, keen, and insightful -- even if they didn't always have the grades to prove it. The problem is that the process of educating athletes at Cal is separate and unequal. They come in unequal, the education they receive is unequal, and then they move on unequally, often without graduating.

At UC Berkeley, as at any Division 1 school that abides by NCAA guidelines, the admissions requirements for athletes are different from those for other students. The average unweighted GPA for Cal's general freshman population is 3.81, and average SAT scores fall between 1,200 and 1,500. In contrast, student athletes with a high-school GPA of 2.5 or above are allowed to have SAT scores as low as 820, whereas athletes with scores of 950 or higher need only have a 2.175 GPA to be accepted.

Van Rheenen said Cal's athletic admissions policy divides students into four basic categories, which are denoted by the letter grades A through D. The Cs and Ds -- who number about twenty -- are admitted under the lower NCAA standards. "They're traditionally what people would call 'blue chips,'" he says. "They're supposedly the individuals who would be major factors in turning a program around, or adding to a program's competitiveness athletically. The people who the coaching staff say is a 'game breaker.'"

Critics complain that these scholarships are simply a ruse for recruiting students to the university just to throw footballs and shoot hoops. Others argue that such athletes take up slots that could otherwise be granted to students with higher GPA and SAT scores. But Van Rheenen notes that it's highly unlikely the positions now being filled by African-American athletes would be allotted, in their absence, to other black students.

In other words, UC Berkeley's lack of diversity is not the fault of athletes. They get into the university legitimately, even if it's via a separate, parallel admissions process. Nor, Mirabelli notes, are they the only students admitted by exception. In fact, exceptional athletes fall into the same category that would harbor a brilliant physicist who couldn't speak English, or a concert violinist with poor writing skills.

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