The Fight Between Berkeley's Academics And Its Football Team Is Getting Ugly

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There’s this old joke around Berkeley that nobody actually knows what the town’s famous university is called. UC Berkeley, Cal Berkeley, California, and a few other permutations get tossed around—most notably “Berkeley,” which academic departments use to refer to the school, and “Cal,” the preferred moniker of the athletics department. Usually, that schism is nothing more than a quirk in nomenclature, but not now. Instead, what began with an investigation into if an assistant football coach put players in danger has evolved into a debate over who’s really in charge at Berkeley: The academics, or the football team? This is, admittedly, not a debate exclusive to Berkeley. What makes it uniquely Berkeley is that the academics seem to think they still have a chance at winning.

It started June 29, when the San Francisco Chronicle published an investigation into the inquiry that cleared strength coach Damon Harrington and the rest of the Cal staff of any wrongdoing in the death of Ted Agu and in the 2013 locker room assault that left freshman Fabiano Hale unconscious. Per the Chronicle, a former player hinted that Harrington incited the fight that left Hale unconscious and that Harrington routinely pushed players too hard in workouts, which was part of why the school had to pay out a $4.75 million settlement to Agu’s family in April. Harrington, however, was cleared by the university.

The Chronicle report revealed several problems with the report, including that several players who were interviewed were hand-picked by athletic program administrators and that both investigators had personal ties to the program. From the Chronicle:

[The] review, however, did not examine Harrington’s role in the two key incidents and contained no analysis of facts, said John Cummins, a former chief of staff to four Berkeley chancellors who oversaw Cal athletics in the mid-2000s, and Mike Smith, who served 36 years as UC Berkeley’s top attorney until 2009.

“An investigation into potentially serious employment misconduct would typically involve interviews of the parties and witnesses, an analysis of the evidence, findings and recommendations, and be carried out by a trained impartial campus investigator,” [former council for UC Berkeley Mike] Smith said. The review’s report “doesn’t contain any analysis or conclusions about what occurred.”

Critics also question the integrity of the investigation because the investigators — John Murray, a private strength and conditioning coach, and Jeffrey Tanji, medical director for sports at UC Davis had personal ties with Cal staff. Murray disclosed in the report that he was a “friend and colleague” of Mike Blasquez, who oversees all of Cal’s strength and conditioning programs. And Tanji said he had trained Casey Batten, the football team physician. Both said in the report those relationships did not influence their findings.

“Obviously, there is a conflict of interest there, or at least an appearance of a conflict,” [former UC Berkeley chancellor’s chief of staff John] Cummins said. “The death of a football player, and a player-on-player assault that led to one player being hospitalized with a major concussion — these are very serious matters. You need an independent body or individual to look very carefully at this.”


Additionally, they reported that Harrington and head coach Sonny Dykes referred to a training group of mostly black players as the “noose group,” which former defensive end Gabe King and others told the Chronicle they were uncomfortable with:

King, who was in the so-called “Noose Group,” said he felt deeply uncomfortable with the coaches’ label. When he told Dykes it was racist, he said the head coach told him the label was inspired by a Texas coach who “noosed” cows. Other ex-players confirmed King’s account.


The next day, the Berkeley faculty association requested that chancellor Nicholas Dirks not renew Harrington’s contract until another investigation could be carried out. The faculty association’s petition was signed by more than 100 professors and said: “If there is any truth to the allegations in the San Francisco Chronicle, condoning such behavior of its employees is out of keeping with any university that is accountable to its students and concerned to protect their safety and welfare.”

Dirks complied, and on Friday ordered a new investigation. But the next day, the Berkeley athletic department released a statement, voicing support for their investigators and condemning the “opinion and conjecture of a couple of long-standing critics of intercollegiate athletics at Cal,” which sure sounds like a shot at the academic faculty. Here is the full statement:

The recent series of articles in the San Francisco Chronicle on our football strength and conditioning program bring up a couple of issues from the past—important matters that nobody here has ever minimized or dismissed—but matters that have been properly investigated and adjudicated.

The investigation of football’s strength and conditioning program was commissioned by (then) Vice Chancellor of Administration and Finance, John Wilton and (former) Director of Intercollegiate Athletics, Sandy Barbour, and conducted by Dr. Jeffrey Tanji.

Dr. Tanji is a professional with the highest ethical standards and there is zero evidence to the contrary. The central finding of the Tanji report is absolutely clear: that the strength and conditioning program under Harrington’s direction was in no significant respect different from football conditioning programs all over the country. In terms of the safety of the program, what stood out about it was its utter normalcy — a point not mentioned in the Chronicle piece, and also not disputed by it.

Our concern has always been, is, and will continue to be doing what is in the best interest of our student-athletes. The progress our football program has made over the past three years academically and athletically is well documented. The work our kids are doing in the community continues to shine. We are on an upward trajectory—the right trajectory—and we will continue to move in that direction. And, we will no longer allow negative stories that are based on and influenced by the opinion and conjecture of a couple of long-standing critics of intercollegiate athletics at Cal to derail the progress we have made and the positive path forward we are on.

Most importantly, our current student-athletes have spoken. Their voices are clear. They are the ones that should be heard. These are the young men who are in direct contact and impacted by Coach Harrington and Coach Dykes—everyday. Here is an example of what our student-athletes have to say:……

As critics like SBNation’s Cal blog have pointed out, the Chronicle’s investigation relied on former players, who weren’t recruited by Dykes and Harrington. Current players, who were recruited by the duo, have spoken out, openly condemning the Chronicle and the faculty.


Likely starter James Looney said he’d consider not playing if Harrington left:


Running back Vic Enwere penned a long, considered response that posits that the faculty’s frustrations with the football program have nothing to do with Harrington and his actions. But rather they are about their longstanding disdain for football players. “You are willing to tarnish a GREAT man’s name because of your personal ideologies,” Enwere wrote.


Here is his original tweet:


This sense that faculty and athletics are natural opponents, essentially that Berkeley and Cal are separate bodies, is at the heart of the schism here. As current 49er Bryce Treggs points out, Harrington’s allegedly wicked actions don’t align with the vociferous support he has been receiving from his players. You can see both sides of the argument. On one hand, the faculty see Harrington as a rogue who may have caused the death of a football player and cost the school $5 million. To the players, Harrington comes off as the sort of fierce, inspiring, skilled coach who can be divisive, yet engender aggressive loyalty. And, as they say, he probably doesn’t run the team any differently than how any other college team operates. In college football, this is just how things are done. The debate is about who is in charge.

It is true, to a degree, that the academic establishment of Berkeley has little to do with the athletic department. Berkeley is not known for its sports teams, it’s known as an academic powerhouse. The school is big and diverse enough that there isn’t any sort of monoculture, but this is the place where activists camped out in trees for 21 months to protest their removal and the construction of new stadium facilities. Berkeley isn’t just one thing, but big college athletics and the sort of far-left politics which the school is famous for don’t exactly align. Certain factions of the university community and faculty are likely still frustrated with the $445 million of debt that the school took on to renovate Memorial Stadium (which sits astride the Hayward Fault, the most seismically fragile section of the San Andreas fault system). The increased spending necessary to just stay competitive in college athletics while the academic side is forced to cut costs certainly isn’t helping.


Football and elite academics can coexist and they do across the Bay, but whether Cal can continue supporting them at the scale with which they do is at the crux of this issue. It’s a big, hairy one that the school and football team appear to come down on different sides of, and there are no easy answers except that one side must win, and historically that side is the football team. Can Berkeley’s faculty buck the trend of recent history? Or will the football players be proven right, with another faculty put back in their lane. The employment status of one strength coach is the issue at hand, but the frustrations run much deeper.

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[San Francisco Chronicle]

Here is the Tanji report.