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No easy fixes for Cal athletics

Jeff Kent is the most famous product in the 108-year history of Cal baseball. So you might expect him to be the most outraged over last week's news that the University of California is eliminating its baseball program.

He's upset. But several years ago Kent also created a foundation called "Women Driven" to establish opportunities for female athletes at Cal. He funded many scholarships, including for members of the lacrosse team -- another sport dropped by Cal last week.

So he sees more than just one side of Cal's budget crisis, one that also claimed men's and women's gymnastics and caused men's rugby to be demoted to club status.

"We can all point fingers right now," Kent said. "At the lack of money. At Title IX. At whether the athletic director didn't give enough support. I'm not pointing fingers. I'm trying to figure out what happened."

He and a network of Cal baseball alumni have been furiously emailing over the past few days. Kent was blindsided by the blow -- he learned about it from a Bay Area newspaper reporter. Since then, he has exchanged voicemails with athletic director Sandy Barbour, who is under fire for the decisions.

"We're trying to do the best we can to salvage a great program," he said.

Kent was speaking at AT&T Park, where he was in attendance for the Giants' big final series with the Padres. The same ballpark where he earned an MVP award and put up numbers that allowed him to become mind-bogglingly wealthy. So why doesn't Kent just write a check to save Cal baseball?

"It's not just money," Kent said.

True. You can't save the baseball team for just one season -- what about next season, and the next 108 years? And you can't raise money only for the baseball team -- that would fly in the face of Title IX. If that was allowed, only sports that have produced incredibly wealthy alums would survive, meaning most women's sports wouldn't have a prayer. How many female athletes have ever earned $86 million in their career, like Kent has? Not too many.

The Cal baseball program has an illustrious history beginning in 1892. But you can't save programs just on the basis of longevity, because -- again - only men's sports would survive. The Cal women's lacrosse team has only been around since 1998. That doesn't mean the lacrosse players' collegiate athletic experience is any less legitimate or meaningful than that of the baseball players.

The slash that drew perhaps the most ire in the Bay Area wasn't the one directed at baseball, but at the Cal rugby team, which will be dropped to "varsity club" status. Cal rugby is one of the most dominating collegiate programs in history, having won 25 national championships in the past 30 years.

But the truth is that Cal rugby was in a unique position as a varsity sport: virtually every other collegiate team is already club status. Rugby is not an NCAA sport; rather, it is governed by USA Rugby. Cal's team is already self-supporting and will likely be fine. Coach Jack Clark said the team had offered to create a women's team, to counteract any Title IX implications. But Cal, already bloated with 29 sports -- second most in the Pac-10 behind well-endowed Stanford and second in the nation among public institutions -- wasn't interested in adding sports.

The backdrop of all this is, of course, the suffocating California budget crisis, forcing Draconian cuts at all public institutions. At a time when faculty and funding have been cut and tuition has jumped, Cal athletics have been suffering from an image problem.

The Cal athletic department -- with a budget of $69 million this school year -- runs a regular deficit and is subsidized by the university to the tune of several million dollars a year. Cal's football coach, Jeff Tedford, is the highest-paid employee in the University of California system, with a salary of $2.8 million. Cal athletics is undertaking a $470 million construction project -- a renovation of its football stadium and construction of a "high performance" athletic center. The funding is reportedly mostly through private donations. But the project is sucking away donations that could go into the general athletic fund.

All of that has created tension on a campus proud of its reputation as one of the finest public institutions in the country.

Now the athletic department is being asked to suffer its fair share of cuts. And the solutions aren't easy. Even a program that produces millionaire professional athletes can disappear.

"We're trying to rally the troops," Kent said. "We're going to try our best to save the program.

"I don't know how we're going to do it, but we're going to try."

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