In May 2018, Jim Knowlton became the director of athletics at the University of California, Berkeley (known among insiders as “Cal”), where he oversees 30 varsity sports teams and hundreds of student-athletes. A graduate of the prestigious U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he later served as a faculty member, Knowlton also oversaw the athletic departments at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in upstate New York and the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. He holds a master's degree in civil engineering from the Cornell University College of Engineering. In 2008, Knowlton retired from the U.S. Army as a colonel after 26 years of service.
We caught up with Knowlton on a rare half-day off since assuming the directorship in May to discuss what he calls “whole-life fitness”—a balanced blend of academics and athletics for achieving a healthy mind and body.
Sports and the military played a big part in your life, both growing up and professionally. Can you talk about how being an athlete shaped your childhood, teenage, and young adult years?
Academics and athletics have played a huge role in my life. Both my parents were educators and athletes. So, athletics and academics were integrated into everything we did. Academics was always first priority, and if you took care of business you could also participate in athletics. I learned at a young age about competition and working together, teamwork, and all the great valuable life lessons you can learn by playing sports.
I also learned a lot about whole-life fitness, as my parents continued to jog and play tennis and stay active their entire lives. I think those things carried over, even to the school I picked. At West Point, every cadet is also an athlete. And then I joined the Army, where athletics were integrated into everything we did. Here at Cal, I feel the same way. All our athletic programs offer our students so many opportunities to gain life lessons and take part in whole-life fitness.
What are some examples of how playing sports can positively impact a young adult’s development?
The beauty of athletics is when you're a freshman on the team, you're a follower. You're a member of the team. You're watching the juniors and seniors and leaders, and you watch how they bring the team together. You watch how they compromise and work together. You learn what I call servant leadership, where your individual needs are not as important as the team needs. You learn how to sacrifice what you need for the betterment of the team. I see that every single day happening at Cal.
Some sports, particularly football, can lead to serious health problems. What are your thoughts on traumatic brain injuries and how do you plan to address them at Cal?
There is no higher priority than the health and well-being of our students. Concussions and head injuries are a matter of concern that goes well beyond the football team and sports in general. They’re present in the military, in car crashes, and in everyday life from trips and falls to skateboarding accidents.
As a whole, we are looking at ways we can make sports safer for all who participate. With football specifically, we’ve made some good progress in recent years with a number of rule changes, and we’re continuing to look at other opportunities to improve here at Cal, and at the conference and NCAA levels. The sport looks different today than it did 10 years ago and it likely will look different 10 years from now. Teams have less contact in practice than they used to, and we now teach our student-athletes to tackle with their shoulders rather than leading with their head.
We want to make educated decisions with the equipment we are providing our student-athletes and are dedicated to being a leader in this area. We were the first school in the Pac-12 conference to try custom-fitted Riddell Precision Fit helmets, with 10 student-athletes using them this season. We also lead the Pac-12 with 17 student-athletes using the new VICIS helmet. In addition, we have a Sports Medicine Steering Committee that regularly reviews health and safety issues and programmatic decisions, and we have a Student-Athlete Wellness Committee that focuses on physical and mental health needs, risk reduction, and athletic and academic performance. It includes representatives from a large cross-section of campus.
Can you talk more about the new developments around safety equipment?
Here in Berkeley, we have a partnership with the School of Optometry (called the Berkeley Sports Vision Institute), which is exploring the relationship between vision and concussions to help students, whether athletes or not, return to their academic studies. Several Cal faculty are conducting research on injury prevention. World-renowned exercise physiologist George Brooks, through a grant from the Pac-12, is studying head trauma and the roles of nutritive support and supplementation. Robert Knight from Cognitive Science, whom I met with last week, is working on the development of a new, safer helmet that reduces how impacts are transferred to the brain, and Mark D’Esposito, MD, is conducting research through his own cognitive neuroscience laboratory on campus.
In your opinion, what type of culture do you want to see at Cal to motivate student-athletes to be able to perform at their best?
What we want is for everyone on all of our teams to be in a developmental culture where they can be their absolute best and where they can compete at the highest level. We’ve got Olympic gold medalists. We’ve got folks who are competing at the absolute top levels in the world. But we'd also like it to be developmental. We want them to have a great experience. We would like to see them look back at their days at Cal fondly because of the friendships they made, because of their relationships with the coaches, because of their success on and off the field.
My job is to really watch, keep my finger on the pulse, and make sure—through senior exit interviews and underclass surveys and going to practices and getting feedback from sports supervisors—that we are attentive to the environment we’re creating on each of our 30 teams.
So I take it that a culture rife with bullying and humiliation is unacceptable at Berkeley.
It's absolutely unacceptable. It's not acceptable in the classroom. It's not acceptable on the athletic field. It's not acceptable in our club programs. It's not how you develop young men and women.
And now a personal question: How are you and your wife adjusting to Berkeley?
We’re having a blast. I have five sons, and the last one, our baby, is a sophomore at the Air Force Academy, so we're empty nesters coming here. My wife and I are having fun exploring. Right now, I'm sitting on a boat heading out to Alcatraz. My first half-day off in a while. So, it was good to take a few hours to recharge before we leave with our men’s basketball team on a visit to China (on Nov. 2). We've been to a lot of different places in the area already, and we are loving it.