BERKELEY, Calif. - Major universities such as the University of California, Berkeley should eliminate athletic scholarships or risk losing their academic luster, consumer advocate Ralph Nader told a standing-room-only crowd Tuesday.
Speaking to more than 100 students, professors and others who packed a UC Berkeley lecture hall and most of a second room, the former presidential candidate said big-time college athletics has dumbed down society.
University resources that should be spent on academics are instead subsidizing entertainment, he said. NCAA Division I athletes are pampered and abused, he added.
"If you get rid of the athletic scholarship, you deflate a lot of the problems,'' Nader said. "Education is a secondary concern at big-time programs. Exploitation is the inevitable outcome.''
Nader's remarks were at a public event associated with a UC Berkeley class on how an athletics program affects a university. The course is co-taught by Nader's sister, UC Berkeley anthropology professor Laura Nader.
UC Berkeley has pumped up to $14 million per year from its general budget into the athletics department, leading to criticism of the administration as budget cuts have affected other parts of the campus. The UC Berkeley Academic Senate - the faculty's governing body - in 2009 approved a resolution calling for the school's athletic department to become self-supporting.
Society's attention to athletics, Nader said, has moved people down what he called the "sensuality ladder,'' a theoretical scale of people's interactions with the world. Nader compared athletics to fast food, which "turns the tongue against the brain.''
"Your education is supposed to push you up the sensuality ladder,'' he said.
Society's path down the ladder is reflected in the fact that universities pay football coaches more than professors and that UC Berkeley alumni were more concerned about the elimination of the baseball team than the university's role designing nuclear weapons, he said.
The audience appeared mostly supportive, loudly applauding Nader after his speech. Some spectators, however, appeared frustrated that Nader had not suggested more specific solutions.
Perhaps college athletes should be unionized in order to prevent abuses by students and coaches, said Thomas Frampton, a UC Berkeley law student.
"I think the genie's out of the bottle, in terms of amateurism and college sports,'' he said after the event. "We need to recognize (athletes) for what they are, which is employees.''
Nader's attention strayed occasionally from athletics to other higher-education subjects. He questioned, for example, why the UC Berkeley law school employed "a war criminal,'' saying professor John Yoo's role in crafting President George W. Bush's torture policies should not be tolerated.
He also told students they should design a statewide referendum to help slow continually rising tuition. And, he said, college students no longer develop the "civic skills'' needed to be leaders.
"That's the skill that determines whether you're going to make a difference in a democratic society,'' Nader said, "or whether you're going to atrophy your mind in a cul-de-sac.''