By Toan P. Do
Exasperation. The “What am I supposed to do now?” moment. This is what the UC Santa Cruz athletics department is feeling.
All across the board, student athletes and administrative office staff alike are throwing up their hands when it comes to slashing budgets, program cuts, and a general lack of support throughout the student body.
Questions are raised like “Why doesn’t anybody care?” or “Where do we go from here?” And, most importantly, “Where do we belong?”
The stereotypical image of Santa Cruz is one filled with pot-smoking hippies — not so much of burly jocks clad in school colors and shoulder pads.
This campus relishes in its alternative culture, and to this day, the student body follows closely in the footsteps of its free-spirited predecessors. However, along with this genetic freedom of spirit comes a lack of enthusiasm for more traditional school activities like attending sporting events to support student athletes.
Is it this innate hippie spirit that causes Banana Slugs to rebel against all things traditional?
“If you look at the origin of the school, it started without athletics,” said Ryan Andrews, executive sports director of the UCSC athletics department. “Athletic competition was not part of [the UCSC founders’] ethos; they didn’t want that here. I think if you look at that origin, that’s how it started, that’s how it rolled out on this campus, and a lot of those same people are still here today.”
According to Andrews, ever since UCSC’s inception over four decades ago, athletics has never really been part of the Banana Slug equation.
“The campus is only 43 years old, so a lot of the people who instituted those philosophies are still here,” Andrews said, “and so to change it, I think we are up against history here, and it’s going to take some time.”
Perhaps because the school was founded on ideals that were fundamentally against athletic competition (for example, the campus was built without any plans for a stadium) the UCSC athletics department is playing a game of catch-up in which history has a head start.
But at the same time, it is unfair to say that the entirety of the student population wants to remain in the stereotypical “anti-athletics” crowd. Eva Chour, a fourth-year legal studies major and devoted Slug fan, does her part to support the university’s teams.
“I care a lot about our sports, because many of my friends are active and passionate about their teams. My favorite sport to watch is women’s water polo,” Chour said. “But the university is not that supportive of the teams, and they don’t inform the student body, as a whole, of all the sporting events.”
So is it safe to assume that the athletics department is still the low man on the totem pole at UCSC?
“I would say yes,” Andrews said. “I hate to say it, but yes. I think it’s been a low priority.”
And as far as rating the student body’s enthusiasm and participation in athletics, Andrews says he would give it a “three out of 10.”
However, to many coaches and athletes, the lack of student support does hardly anything to their game or mindset.
“We had a coach here that left and went to the Army as a swim coach,” recalled Bob Hansen, head tennis coach at UCSC. “I remember one time, he was really frustrated and he was walking out to the courts, and he said to me, ‘Don’t you ever get tired of the fact that nobody around here ever gives a shit about what you do and who you are?’ I thought about it for a second, and I looked at my guys who were waiting for me to come to practice, and I said, ‘No, because they care.’”
The UCSC athletics department slowly began to grow over the years, largely by means of grassroots efforts around campus, and has since carved out a niche for itself competing in the Division III arena. However, compared to other DIII schools, UCSC stands out.
“The average DIII school has an average student population of 2,400 students. We have 15,000,” said Linda Spradley, UCSC’s athletics director. “It isn’t so much that we’re DIII, as it is [that] our school is huge, and we get lost up in it.”
Recently, many schools in surrounding regions, such as CSUs East Bay and Monterey and UC Merced, have established themselves as DII schools. East Bay and Monterey are notable Santa Cruz rivals.
In light of this fact, many question whether Santa Cruz should remain in DIII.
“We’ve got to figure out where we belong, and justify why we belong there,” Spradley said. “If we belonged in DII, it is still going to take people five years to recognize us and another five for us to get the facilities. We’d need the money and facilities to qualify which we don’t have. So we have a lot of hard soul-searching [to do].”
To this Spradley added, “But there is something about DII.”
On the other hand, many athletes and coaches have come to love the fundamentals of DIII competition that make Santa Cruz so different from DI and DII programs.
“I’m definitely glad I went to DIII instead of DI,” said Annie Keating, senior driver on the women’s water polo team. “I could’ve gone to DI, but I chose Santa Cruz because I wanted it to be more about the team and the sport.”
Colin Mark-Griffin, senior tennis player and secretary of the Student Athletic Advisory Committee (SAAC), shared a similar story.
“At one point I said that I wanted to go to a DIII school, and Santa Cruz was No. 1,” he said. “I remember a DI school wanted to red-shirt me, and when the coach told me that, my heart just went ‘boom,’” bringing his right hand plummeting into his left.
“I could’ve gone to Western Michigan and ridden the bench,” Mark-Griffin said, “but here, I’ve been able to play almost every match and have had all these great experiences.”
Whether or not Santa Cruz should remain DIII or move to DII, the fundamental differences in ideologies are worth mentioning.
“The point of DIII athletes is the experience of the athletes, more so than [that of] the crowd,” Hansen said. “Here, athletics at the DIII level is looked at as part of your whole education mission at the school. I think that athletics really has its place in DIII schools and I love the concept.”
When it comes to money, at this point, no one is a stranger to the grim economic crisis this country faces. The UCSC athletic department is no exception, barely limping along under the weight of mass budget cuts.
Earlier this year, Spradley faced the difficult decision of cutting a program in an effort to save the rest of the athletic programs from having to take deep financial cuts. As a result, the men’s and women’s water polo teams were taken off the roster — despite the passing of Measure 31 in spring 2007, which offset costs for athletics by adding a fee of $5 per student per quarter.
But if there’s one thing that faculty, coaches and athletes can agree on, it’s that the athletic facilities at UCSC are not up to par.
“I think that we have a lot of things that are inherently difficult regarding the nature of our institution,” Spradley said. “We don’t have a big venue or a big arena, or anything like that … well, we’ve got our little cracker-jack gym. It’s small, it’s not really a college-level athletic facility. It’s the best we can do, but it just isn’t up to what it needs to be.”
Facility issues such as this directly affect the interest and ability of the student population to view sporting events.
“To be honest with you, I don’t do promotions. If I do promotions we’d have to shut the [event] down. We wouldn’t be able to get people in there,” Spradley explained. “There wouldn’t be enough room to fit everyone, so I have to be quiet, and let those who already support the teams come because they fill the bleachers. It’s a catch-22.”
It seems the only answer for now is more money.
“Athletics needs infrastructure,” Andrews said. “It needs staffing, it needs money, and it needs facilities. Right now, it’s kind of an add-on program. It is a recreation model, and it’s not fair to athletics, and it won’t be until it has those things are in place. We’re fighting an uphill battle.”
So the question remains, where does athletics belong at UCSC?
There are so many inherent challenges facing the department that even if it somehow attained greater sums of money, simply having more funds would not solve everything. As Banana Slugs, the least we can do is unite and show support for our student athletes who work so hard to represent us.
Mark-Griffin says he loves when his fellow Slugs come out to support the tennis team, which has won the NCAA National Championship twice in the last four years.
“We’ve played in front of crowds that are big enough [that] we get really pumped, and I wish it was like that all the time,” he said. “It’s like you put in a shit-load of work and you just end up accepting that you’re doing it for your team — which isn’t hard, but that’s what it boils down to.”