Fans Fear for Varsity Status of Rugby Team

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As the UC Berkeley Department of Intercollegiate Athletics nears a decision on how to sustainably operate the department in light of multimillion dollar budget deficits in recent years, students and alumni have begun to speculate that UC Berkeley's championship-winning rugby team may lose its varsity sport status.

While campus officials maintain that no decisions regarding the future of the department are finalized, supporters of the team created a Facebook event titled "Protest Cal varsity rugby becoming a 'club sport'," with more than 890 guests attending and approximately 4,000 people invited. The event displays an e-mail allegedly written by head rugby coach Jack Clark to Athletic Director Sandy Barbour urging Barbour to maintain rugby's varsity status.

Similar concerns surfaced over the summer for the men's gymnastics team. Team members created a website and initiated a letter-writing campaign due to fears that their sport would be cut.

At the end of the 2008-09 fiscal year, the department received $13.7 million from the campus. As a result of continuing budget deficits in prior years, campus leadership and the department have been formulating a plan to restructure the department's financial model.

An advisory council, appointed by UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau and composed of four faculty and four alumni, issued recommendations in July similar to those of the Academic Senate Task Force on Intercollegiate Athletics and discussed the possibility of "team elimination." Birgeneau will make all final decisions regarding the department.

Jeffrey Warren, a donor to the campus and a former Cal rugby player, said after talking to Clark, he was concerned that rugby could be relegated to the status of a club sport, thus losing campus financial support used for services such as sports medicine for the team.

But UC Berkeley spokesperson Dan Mogulof said the department and campus leadership are examining all possibilities.

"No decisions have been made," he said. "Asking about cuts is a hypothetical question, and IA and campus senior leadership are sorting through all possible options."

In a statement released earlier this year, Barbour said only football, men's and women's basketball and women's volleyball would be completely safe from elimination because they generate a significant amount of revenue for the department.

Formed in 1882, rugby is UC Berkeley's oldest sport, and the team has won 25 national championships since 1980.

Warren said while eliminating the team's varsity status may seem to save the campus hundreds of thousands of dollars on paper, rugby's budget for this year is already covered by alumni donations, and the campus may lose philanthropy donations if they remove rugby's varsity status.

"(Rugby) is the fourth largest revenue-producing sport on campus," he said. "There's no reason, financially, to drop rugby, and the sport meets all the requirements of excellence that the university requires. The children sacrifice, they work hard, and they graduate."

But Mogulof said any decisions would be made on a holistic review, not on a team-to-team basis. He said Birgeneau must also consider Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, a federal bill that prevents gender-based discrimination for federally funded education programs.

"It's not just looking at a specific team, it's looking at the program as a whole," he said. "You can't simply say that if you eliminate one thing, it'll fix the problem ... everything impacts everything else."

He added that it was understandable for people to be anxious about the upcoming decision.

"Anybody who can read basic financial numbers is concerned," he said. "That's why in IA and campus senior leadership, they've taken so much time to work through and understand the impact of every possible option and discuss and analyze alternatives."


James Zhao covers academics and administration. Contact him at [email protected]

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