Alexander: After the bluster, UC Regents allow UCLA to head to Big Ten – for a price


Money makes things happen. Wednesday, after all of the saber-rattling and the dark hints that the University of California Board of Regents could overturn UCLA’s move to the Big Ten, the Regents let them go after all.

But it will come at a cost.

The conclusion to this 168-day saga came after a lengthy delay to the open session at UCLA’s Luskin Conference Center, partly due to protesters who were representing striking UC academic workers.

UC police are beginning to arrest protesters at Regents meeting.

— Billy Witz (@billywitz) December 14, 2022

The final agreement that allowed UCLA to join USC in the Big Ten beginning with the 2024-25 school year included a host of “mitigation measures” that could cost $9 million or more, to make up for the increased travel demands on athletes in what will become a coast-to-coast conference. Among them:

• An increase in academic support of at least $1.5 million, to pay for “additional learning specialists, the expansion of summer bridge programming for student-athletes, and direct stipends to student-athletes for investment in learning technology.”

• Additional nutritional support of at least $4.3 million, including “guaranteed breakfast and lunch availability on campus for all UCLA student-athletes, professional dietician services, and funds not less than $250,000 set aside for additional nutritious meals while traveling.” Then again, if the goal is for all of the school’s athletes to eat as well as Chip Kelly mandates the football team dines, $4.3 million isn’t enough.

• An increase in mental health services for athletes, with a stated figure of “not less than $562,800” for the 2023-24 fiscal year, including “additional mental health service providers for student-athletes and education programs around stress management, sleep, disordered eating, and other conditions.”

• Additionally, UCLA’s athletic department will work with the school’s Academic Senate to make sure athletes have access to remote courses and online materials, will “engage Student Affairs in facilitating conversations between student-athletes and faculty members,” will “collect information on an annual basis from student-athletes concerning their experiences with mental health services provided by UCLA, particularly with regard to wait time,” and will “conduct an annual survey of student-athletes to ensure the mitigation measures described in this item are sufficient and to identify any additional areas of support that may be needed.”

Let’s hope that survey gets more respondents than the one that originally was supposed to gauge athletes’ feelings about the move to the Big Ten earlier in the fall. The school said at the time that a majority supported the move, but only 111 athletes out of some 600 responded. Of those, only four football players and one men’s basketball player answered the survey, so there’s still no real way of knowing how athletes in two of the sports that will be most impacted by the travel really feel.

(Then again, how many of those 600 will still be on campus by the fall of 2024?)

Oh, and then there’s the kicker: The Berkeley Tax.

An 11th amendment to the agreement stipulates that “the President” – UC president Michael V. Drake – will make a recommendation after the Pac-12 finalizes its upcoming media contract of a “contribution” from UCLA to Cal. The original figure was between $2 million and $5 million, but the amendment was itself amended in Wednesday’s open session to raise the ceiling from $5 million to $10 million.

The first 10 amendments passed by an 11-5 roll call vote. The Berkeley Tax passed unanimously.

Contribution? Mitigation? Shakedown? It depends, I guess, on whether you wear UCLA’s powder blue or Cal’s navy blue. But this was the real purpose of this process, because the departure of UCLA and the corresponding reduction in the next Pac-12 media contract without the L.A. schools will adversely, and severely, affect Cal.

(And keep in mind that while an expenditure of $19 million could be considered a pittance in light of the $70 million or more UCLA will get in the Big Ten’s new media rights deal that takes effect in the fall of 2004, this is a program that has been running large deficits for a while.)

The Regents’ process over the last 5½ months seemed to be two-pronged: Protect Cal’s interests as best they could, and make clear their unhappiness over not getting a heads-up from UCLA chancellor Gene Block before the move was announced. The opinion that they could in fact block the move turned out to be so much bluster.

Regent Keith Ellis noted at Wednesday’s meeting that while the “process” – i.e., UCLA going it alone – merited deeper discussion, the chancellors do have the right and responsibility to make decisions in the best interests of their own campuses.

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And, he added, “This authority should stay with the chancellors going forward because we play athletics as individual campuses. Each campus has its own mascot for that purpose, you know.”

Yet this decision will not satisfy everyone, not even those in UCLA’s camp. Some prominent alumni – the most prominent being Bill Walton – have been highly critical of the move to the Big Ten and were, in fact, rooting for it to be blocked. And the president of the National College Players Association (and former UCLA football player), Ramogi Huma, issued this statement after the meeting:

“The UC Regents are now complicit in sacrificing UCLA athletes’ education to increase salaries for a few people and to gold plate a few more facilities. Allowing UC Berkeley to join the financial and academic exploitation of UCLA athletes does not make it any better. UCLA leaders and UC Regents have lost their way. UCLA athletes are not university property. They should be treated fairly in both the educational and business aspects of college sports. This move does neither.”

It’s a business, and all the objections in the world can’t drown out the siren song of media rights dollars. But, then, we’ve known that all along.

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