Baseball helped get Gavin Newsom into college. Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Baseball helped get Gavin Newsom into college. Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Somewhere along the 405 freeway in Southern California, there's a billboard with a succinct, if not slightly frustrating, message: "You are not stuck in traffic. You are traffic."

The point of the billboard, one of Gavin Newsom's favorites, is clear to California's lieutenant governor. "We are our behavior," he says.

In keeping with that mantra, Newsom is attempting to induce nothing less than a behavioral shift in college sports and education as a whole. Last week, he sent letters to the presidents of two of the largest public university systems in the state pushing for the first step toward that goal: holding administrators accountable for the educational successes and failures of their athletes.

College Sports

In his letters to University of California President Janet Napolitano and California State University Chancellor Timothy P. White, Newsom calls for "aggressive benchmarks" to be written into athletic directors' contracts that create incentive for academic success, "or face termination, period." He blasts the abysmal graduation rates of athletes in certain programs and cites the open position left by the resignation of Sandy Barbour, the athletic director at the University of California at Berkeley, as the perfect opportunity to reset the course.

As Newsom noted, the graduation success rate of the UC Berkeley football team was 44 percent in 2012; for the Sacramento State football team, it was 61 percent. And the problem isn't limited to the gridiron: The graduation rate for the golf team at Fresno State was just 29 percent. A look at the NCAA's most recent report reveals other troubling numbers: CSU Bakersfield basketball, a 37 percent graduation rate; CSU Fullerton cross country/track, 25 percent; UC Berkeley basketball, 38 percent; and UC Riverside baseball, 38 percent.

Context is important: The NCAA is quite proud of its overall graduation rate, 81 percent among all athletes in Division I. And it could well be argued that the academic struggles of some of California's athletic programs are simply indicative of a broader problem in education. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the federal graduation rate for all institutions is 59.2 percent, and 57.2 percent for public colleges.

Unfortunately, the metrics used by the NCAA are as flawed as the system they're meant to describe. The graduation success rate is an NCAA concoction that takes into account athlete-specific circumstances, most notably transfers, that the association thinks are left unfairly unaccounted in the federal graduation rate. It's no surprise, then, that the federal number for Division I schools is much lower than their NCAA number: 65 percent. Still, the NCAA would point out that number is above the national average.

But that's not really the point -- or perhaps, that's actually part of the larger point. High dropout rates are largely due to unprepared students conditioned to see merely getting into college as winning the battle. Many college athletes come from disadvantaged and underserved communities where they've garnered little to no academic preparation for college. And just as legacies, children of donors and celebrities, and other "special interest" student groups have a leg up on the general population, athletes have a pathway to educational institutions to which they might otherwise be deemed unqualified.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. Opening the door for social mobility has been a cornerstone of our education system for decades. Newsom points to himself as one such success story: Although not from an underprivileged background, his battle with dyslexia distracted him from schoolwork and would have kept him out of college had it not been for his pitching prowess. He attended Santa Clara on a partial baseball scholarship and overcame his learning disability to become the mayor of San Francisco and now, lieutenant governor.

"Baseball is the reason I got into college -- I'm not naïve about it," he says. "I love sports. I was a beneficiary of that, quite directly. It plays an incredibly valuable role in society and on these campuses."

The NCAA's assertion that "education is a vital part of the college athletics experience" may sound true in theory, but rings hollow in practice given athlete dropout rates, lower grading standards and easy -- or even fake -- "jock classes." Many who disparage the idea of athlete compensation (including the NCAA) proclaim that these "students" should take their scholarship as pay and like it, but the fact is the value of the education they're supposedly receiving keeps diminishing by the semester.

Then consider the seven-figure contracts of coaches and athletic directors that reward athletic success with little to no mention of academics -- contracts that, according to Newsom, go through countless revisions to include more and more athletic-based clauses. In March, Ohio State AD Gene Smith came under fire for the $18,000 bonus he received on his almost $1 million base salary for wrestler Logan Stieber's winning a national title. It was eye-opening for many who thought the big money was reserved for powerhouse sports such as football and basketball, but here was an administrator feeding from the teat of a nonrevenue athlete who probably didn’t even receive a scholarship that could cover his full tuition.

OSU showed us that it's not just about the commodification of sports or fair pay or the free market, but also what colleges choose to prioritize.

"Scholarships are a contract; we can't pay lip service," Newsom says. "This is an embarrassment. It's beyond embarrassing. We're perpetuating a myth, and we're hurting real people. We've got to create a campus culture that will serve these stated athletes, not just the coaches and ADs."

To do that, Newsom is using his platform in California to push for incremental change. As a member of the UC Board of Regents and a trustee for the CSU system, he's urging his colleagues to put this issue on the table. His hope is to start at schools with open AD slots and create new, academic-based contracts that can then be applied to other new university administrator hires, including coaches and presidents. In a perfect world, the NCAA would take notice, followed by the NBA and the NFL, which might actually realize the benefits of athletes learning financial planning and professional etiquette.

Newsom is optimistic that his plan can eventually be applied more broadly, but it's still in its infancy. For one, adding incentives for academic success further encourages the kind of fraud we suspect to be fairly rampant throughout college sports. Just look at the recent investigation of four Notre Dame football players accused of submitting coursework written by others.

Then there's the matter of how to pay for the increased academic support needed to identify and help struggling students. California's public universities are still grappling with a series of budget cuts; Moody's downgraded UC's credit rating to Aa2 in March, emblematic of the problems the nation's public schools are having to stay afloat. Newsom thinks the onus is on the NCAA, which generates almost $1 billion in revenue, mostly from television contracts. The association would probably counter that just 20 of the 128 Football Bowl Subdivision schools posted profits last year, toeing the usual party line that the NCAA is a nonprofit organization.

A nonprofit with an unpaid labor force and executives who keep raking in the cash, that is. The average AD at an FBS school makes more than half a million dollars a year, a 14 percent increase since 2011. No matter where you lie in the pay-for-play debate, properly educating these athletes is the very least we can do for a group of people who keep this giant enterprise running.

"The money is an excuse to a real resolve and commitment," Newsom says. "If we're monetizing athletes' contributions, resources should be prioritized back to supporting their academic achievement."

Athletic directors and administrators would probably be inspired to make the numbers work if their jobs and ever-increasing salaries actually depended on it.

"The NCAA has got to wake up," Newsom says. "They're under assault for good reason -- because they haven't done their jobs. It's the NCAA that needs to truly look in the mirror and take some responsibility."

To contact the writer of this article: Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net.