James Bethea had a not-shabby 3.4 grade-point average and was a star running back when he attended Cleveland, one of the top high schools in the San Fernando Valley. Bethea had his sights on California's most prestigious public university, but his academic performance would not have gotten him admitted to Berkeley. It was his athletic performance that did the trick. "I was told it was a 'full scholarship' for playing football, and that was all I cared about," he recalls.
Athletic grants-in-aid for college students began in 1956. What was once an educational gift became a binding contract in 1967, when institutions were allowed to terminate scholarships to athletes who withdrew from their sports. Six years after that, four-year scholarships were replaced with renewable year-to-year grants, and now the specter of semester-to-semester contracts lurks. Like many universities, Berkeley generally supports its football players in some measure through five school years, allowing a "redshirt" year for many players who are held off the active roster due to injury or inexperience. "But they won't put that commitment in writing," Huma says.
Bethea began his freshman year thinking he'd major in architecture. But by the end of the year he had switched to the most popular jock major, American Studies, which offers broad-based humanities courses with flexible class offerings. Derek Van Rheenen, director of Berkeley's Athletic Study Center, says, "A lot of the players come in with pretty unrealistic classroom goals, both in terms of their time commitments and in terms of the academic demands."
The NCAA sets a limit of 20 hours a week that a student athlete can spend on his sport. This accounts for formal practices, some team meetings and the games themselves. It doesn't include travel time to away games, commuting to campus from far-flung but cheaper apartments and all the other team commitments. Let's add that the athletes love their sport, perhaps more than it loves them. "I'm a competitor," Bethea says. "If someone pushing me for a spot in the starting lineup is going to review film for four hours, then I'm going to review film for four and a half hours." In fact, Huma says, athletes spend as many as 60 hours a week in season on their game--practicing, strength conditioning, getting treatment for injuries, attending team meetings, reviewing films. Coaches book virtually every hour of their non-classroom time. Off season, their commitment falls to about 30 hours a week, he says.
A student athlete has to take at least 12 credits every semester to stay eligible with the NCAA--Berkeley has set its own standard for the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences at 13. Thirteen credits translates into 13 class hours every week and, according to Berkeley guidelines, every hour in the classroom should be matched by two hours of study. So 13 credits means 39 hours of schooling every week. As for dating--forget it. In survival mode, Bethea makes it clear to approaching women that he doesn't "have time for the girlfriend thing." The only exception is when, near the end of a month in which he's coming up short, he might "hustle up" a casual lady friend for a loan or a meal.
Meanwhile, his main education is the school of hard knocks. "I'm not proud of this," Bethea says, "but I'll admit I've figured out how to get by in my classes without ever reading the books. You can put all your marbles into school and do half-ass football, or you can put all your marbles into football and do half-ass schoolwork. Sure, there are a few exceptional people, the academic All-Americans who can do both. But for the vast majority of us, the numbers just don't add up."
Bethea, who was raised by his grandparents, is among the tiny number of athletes who qualify for federal Pell grants for disadvantaged students, but he says it still doesn't provide enough to meet his bills. Contrary to stereotype, only 15% of all Division I athletes qualify for either the Pell grants or the NCAA's $15-million fund for severely underprivileged athletes.
Loans are an option, but many students are caught flat-footed when they realize how much they will need to go into debt, Huma says. They end up relying on credit cards, he says, the most usurious form of debt.
When he's not drinking in the adulation of football fans, Bethea is executing baroque strategies, which sometimes backfire and leave him in an even bigger hole. Remember, this is a young man who turns 21 on Sept. 24--right between the road game at the University of Illinois and the home game against USC.
This summer he double-dipped. In addition to taking two classes to qualify for a partial athletic stipend (a little over half of the monthly $764-plus-training-table he receives during the school year), he landed a paralegal/clerk job at a San Francisco law firm. He could take BART to the city in the morning and still meet his obligations on campus, which included voluntary workouts.