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Going for Gold 

Academy of Art’s new sports program is about spirit, marketing — and the chance to break even more rules.

Wednesday, Aug 27 2008

A quick glance through a propped-open door at Kezar Pavilion reveals a dozen or so women of Amazonian proportions outfitted in snazzy black uniforms anticipating a serve. The red and black logos emblazoned upon the players' backs indicate the group is the Academy of Art University's volleyball team — that, in addition to the ubiquitous Academy of Art bus idling out on Stanyan.

Given the school's rapacious appetite for real estate and aforementioned bus fleet, just about the only place in San Francisco you might be surprised to see an Academy of Art insignia would be on a team jersey. But not for long.

This month, the art school kicks off an intercollegiate sports program, fielding 12 teams in the NCAA Division II Pacific West Conference. And if the notion of an art school recruiting players for NCAA competition and doling out athletic scholarships strikes you as odd — it is. The Academy of Art is the only one.

The school loftily tabs the multimillion-dollar endeavor as a stereotype-shattering move harking back to the ancient Greek model of blending athletics with artistic and intellectual pursuits. And yet, even for the school's own students, the notion of the academy fielding sports teams — and cheerleaders — is often unintentionally hilarious. "It's an art school. Most of us are not jocks; we're the kids drawing in the corner," said Ken, a giggling undergraduate. "I don't think a majority of students are going to give a shit about this."

Back on the volleyball court, the serve sails over the net. A black-clad player calls for it, kneels, and bumps the ball toward a teammate. With an acrobatic flourish, the setter flips the ball over her head and the outside hitter readies herself for the — slam! An unseen hand shuts the door in SF Weekly's face. The academy bills itself as a private institution — and it is, in more ways than one.

As volleyball practices go, this one did not seem out of the ordinary — except for its timing. Bob Hogue, the commissioner of the Pac West, said that he made it clear to the academy months ago that conference rules do not permit schools to hold practices before the NCAA-mandated opening date of Monday, Aug. 11. This volleyball practice took place the week prior. In fact, SF Weekly documented coaches and athletes on five other academy teams also getting a leg up on the competition by holding practices early.

In addition to the obvious competitive advantage derived from additional workouts — after all, practice makes perfect — NCAA rules set season lengths to prevent students from practicing all year long. Eyewitnesses claim some of the academy's teams were practicing with their coaches for much of the summer. "My understanding was this [early practice] wasn't going to happen," Hogue says. "If something other than that occurred, I would be surprised and disappointed."

Cue surprise and disappointment. And yet when it comes to news of the Academy of Art being unwilling to follow the rules, surprise is the last reaction from housing activists, community organizers, politicians, and city planners who have locked horns with the school.

From 1994 until last year, the Stephens family — which has owned and operated the academy since Richard S. Stephens founded it 79 years ago — purchased 14 San Francisco residential buildings, leased three more, and converted them into student housing. Not only did the school neglect to obtain the city's permission to make these conversions, city officials weren't even aware the school had obtained the buildings. It wasn't until the Academy of Art filed its Institutional Master Plan in 2006 — three decades overdue — that city planners even knew how many school structures the family owned or leased. Paul Correa, the academy's planning director, still doesn't, putting the number at "32 to 34." As for the uncertainty, "I've only been here six weeks," he says. (According to the master plan, it's apparently 32 — for now). Critics charge the school with gobbling up fistfuls of the city's dwindling supply of affordable housing, taking over neighborhoods (and clogging them with buses), and generally acting as if city laws and regulations apply only to others.

Within that belatedly filed master plan, the academy boldly projects it will mushroom its student population from its current 11,334 to 24,000 by 2017, requiring the acquisition of nine or 10 more properties. The school hopes, in part, to draw these students — and their tuition checks — by fielding competitive sports teams. Within the next decade the academy aims to make the leap from its current status of Division II to Division I — the highest level of collegiate sports, on par with UCLA, Duke, and Stanford — and even field a football team.

It's a wildly ambitious goal, but the academy didn't get to be a $100 million business by accident. And yet, if city politicos and planners or surly NCAA officials intercede, it will be the Academy of Art's turn to be surprised — and disappointed.

In the elevator to the Academy of Art athletic department's office, a dog-eared flier hangs on the wall. "Learn to throw," it reads. Is this how the academy is recruiting its athletes? Not quite: A closer look reveals the flier is an invitation to learn to throw pottery.

Within the department's headquarters, a phalanx of student interns hammers on laptops while surrounded by boxes of uniforms and other sports paraphernalia stacked almost six and a half feet high. The cardboard pillars are nearly as tall as athletic director Jamie Williams, a former San Francisco 49ers tight end during the team's glory years, who actually has to duck to enter the room.

The eyes of any visitor to Williams' office are immediately drawn to a four-and-a-half-foot–long sword dangling behind his desk. It's a remnant of his postfootball days in the 1990s, when he "trained in ninja and broadsword" in hopes of becoming Hollywood's black Conan the Barbarian. That didn't pan out, but Williams did earn a doctor of education degree from the University of San Francisco in 1999 — and he brought his sword with him. He moved into motivational speaking and became a leadership coach for corporate executives. The symbolism-laden verbiage of motivational business speechifying has apparently proven successful for wooing undergraduate athletes, and Williams slips into it with well-rehearsed ease. "People walk into this office and they understand that this is an adventure," he says. "We are warriors, and we are going up against forces, and we have a sword to fight with. When you leave here, you're a photographer, a fashion designer, or an advertiser. That's your sword."

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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