Cal rugby coach Jack Clark

The grim face of Cal Athletic Director Sandy Barbour yesterday confirmed that nothing about yesterday’s announcements of five sports being cut from the varsity list was easy. For outside observers, even after absorbing the words of Barbour and Chancellor Robert Birgeneau at the press conference, and the fact sheets handed out by the university’s media relations team, the biggest puzzle was the demotion of the rugby team to a new, “varsity club” status.

Under the new designation, rugby will continue to train and compete at Witter Rugby Field and have its offices in the Doc Hudson Field House. (Rugby, in any case, has been turfed off Witter while Memorial Stadium is being renovated. The plan is for the team to resume games there in the spring 2013 rugby season.) With varsity club status, rugby will report to the Vice Chancellor, Administration, rather than the Athletic Director. Support services, such as admissions, sports medicine and access to training facilities, are still to be worked out.

Rugby coach Jack Clark seemed none the wiser. Following the press conference with Birgeneau, Barbour and Vice Chancellor Frank Yeary, Clark stood at the back of the room and read a brief statement to the press. Then he and three members of his team, who couldn’t have looked grimmer, patiently answered questions. Clark — and the other affected coaches — only learned of the cuts on Tuesday morning, so he refused to speculate on matters where he didn’t feel he was fully informed.

What he did have to say in his statement, however, had the crunch of a good tackle. “The current and historic values, standards and ethos of Cal Rugby as a high-performance sport are superior to those of Intercollegiate Athletics as a whole,” Clark stated. “Moreover, I can promise that this same Cal Rugby culture will not be victim to administrative structure.”

According to Clark, Cal Rugby “contributes in excess of $300,000 annually to the athletic department’s general fund”. University spokesman Dan Mogulof told reporters after the press conference that he thought Clark’s figures didn’t take into account overhead and other costs.

What is undisputed is the rugby team’s record of unparalleled success. Since 1980 it has won 25 national championships and is the reigning national champion. According to effusive comments from both Barbour and Birgeneau, rugby players are also seen as exemplary student athletes.

Rugby’s special position was addressed by both Barbour and Yeary. “Rugby has a substantial endowment,” Barbour said. “The move to a varsity club status we believe gives them the opportunity to compete for the same national championship and to compete against the same competition. The underlying principle is that as a university we are committed to their ability to have success.”

Yeary said that the import of the shift to the new varsity club status was that rugby would undergo a three-year transition with declining levels of support from the university. “By 2014, we would suggest that rugby will be fully self-sufficient in terms of funding,” he said.

Clark agreed that rugby could be — and is — financially self-sufficient “through a combination of endowment payout, annual giving and commercial income”.

With all that, why was rugby demoted? “It started as a financial question,” Barbour told Berkeleyside, “but it became more than a financial decision.” Asked whether she was referring to Title IX, Barbour said: “It’s Title IX  and a range of other factors that came into it.”

To conform with the law, universities must meet one of three tests for participation — proportionality, history and continued practice of program expansion, and full accommodation of athletic interests and abilities.

Proportionality requires that male-female participation number be “substantially proportionate” to full-time undergraduate enrollments. Cal’s undergraduate body is 52.9% female. Perhaps the toughest fact for Cal’s rugby team was the 61 men in the squad — easily the largest number among the sports that were cut. As a varsity club sport, the rugby team will not be part of the Title IX calculation.

Lance Knobel (Berkeleyside co-founder) has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. Much of his career was in business journalism. He was editor-in-chief of both Management Today, the leading business magazine...