The University of California is basking in the news that its Golden Bears have returned to the ranks of the top ten college football teams this week, two delicious notches above downstate rival UCLA, albeit still nine places below perennial superpower USC. But not everyone is pleased that this worldwide beacon of both academic excellence and loony-left activism looks as though it could well become an enduring football powerhouse.
Millions of viewers of last Saturday night's nationally-telecast Bears victory over highly regarded Tennessee of the pre-eminent Southeastern Conference (SEC) were treated to the sight of the tree-sitters who have spent the last year occupying the branch networks of a grove of oak trees, trying to block a substantial investment in new athletic facilities next to the football stadium, and, in a separate project, seismically reinforce and refurbish Memorial Stadium, opened in 1923 and badly in need of both improvements. The City of Berkeley is also opposed to the projects. Because its zoning strictures are powerless to stop the state-owned university, by law exempt from municipal regulation, the city has naturally resorted to the courts. What the legislature intended makes no difference if you can find the right judge, as every American liberal understands. The city feigns concern for seismic safety at the football stadium and neighboring facilities. It is jarring to see a municipal government that also fashions itself a world leader in the realm of diplomatic policy taking the de facto position that a university with seven Nobel Laureates currently on its faculty needs to be restrained by the superior geological and engineering expertise of the City Manager, Mayor, and City Council.
But the real battle is not about seismology, it is about the very soul of Berkeley.
Some years ago, the Chancellor of UC Berkeley, Robert Berdahl, decided to invest significant resources in the football program, recruiting Jeff Tedford, a great coach, from Oregon and committing to student scholarships and other support and new facilities. Alumni were quickly able to donate sufficient funds to cover the planned construction program. It was an extremely shrewd choice of priorities. Bringing change to an organization as large and self-directed as a major university is problematic for any leader. The Chancellor has identified a significant tool in creating a football program aimed at national championships. For one thing, the ability to entertain state legislators with choice seats at exciting football games earns tremendous good will, and those same legislators do, after all, vote on appropriations for the school. This strategy has paid off for other public ivies like Michigan, Texas, UCLA, Wisconsin, and Florida. The same logic, of course, applies to the star-studded ranks of wealthy and successful alumni, who comprise a significant segment of the state's (and indeed the nation's and world's) power elite. But even more importantly, a great football team brings excitement and starts to change the atmosphere on campus. It is a fact that for all its academic honors and worldwide eminence, Cal is a bit of a laughingstock, a worldwide symbol of student and faculty radicalism run amok. At roughly the same time the Free Speech Movement broke out on campus, political control of the city switched from the Republicans to the Democrats, and continued onward in a leftward vector. Town and gown are inextricably linked; in point of fact, the university preceded the establishment of the municipality. To the consternation of local leftists, Berkeley, the campus and the community alike, is in the grip of pigskin fever. Comparatively few remember longhaired Mario Savio, leader of the Free Speech Movement; quarterback Nate Longshore and wide receiver DeSean Jackson are the heroes of the day, along with other players who create excitement. Instead of smelly hippies and fulminating Marxists, images of celebrating frat boys, cute and sexy cheerleaders, and heroic athletes dominate media mentions of Berkeley.
This has caused no end of indigestion among the perennially angry local left. A writer for a local rag penned this print sneer:
"Up until this point I've tried to be polite, but now it's time to come out of the closet. I am one of the quite sizeable majority of graduates of elite universities who actively dislike all forms of professional football, including the so-called amateur teams fielded mostly by second-rate "athletic powerhouses." People like me tend to regard the whole megilla as breeding ground for the Michael Vicks of the future. We are not thrilled that our alma mater has jumped on this bandwagon with big bucks."
Imagine the horrors that loom! Non-leftist, even patriotic applicants flooding the admissions office, eager to cheer on a great football team at a great university, whose in-state tuition, incidentally, is still quite a bargain despite substantial hikes. World class non-leftist faculty, attracted by a successful football program, more willing to listen to job offers. Students more interested in pep rallies than demonstrations.
If too many of these social undesirables come to Berkeley, all will be lost. The city is already attracting more and more upscale development, lured by its views, climate, convenient location for regional transportation, and pleasing cityscape. The town has always been divided between the very affluent hill neighborhoods and the less affluent "flats." But now it is getting harder and harder for the hard core constituents of the left wing political machine, the welfare and social benefits recipients, the political activists, and the city employees with plenty of time available for politics, to be able to afford to live anywhere in Berkeley. The powers that be in campus left wing circles and in city hall desperately fear a flood tide of normalization that would make Berkeley more like Palo Alto, home to local rival Stanford: rich, content, and generally happy to be part of America.
So I am cheering on the Golden Bears with extra enthusiasm. In an unexpected way, they are now America's team.
(photo credits: University of California)
Thomas Lifson, editor and publisher of American Thinker, is a longtime Berkeley resident.