The Black Athletes’ Equal Protection Case Against the NCAA’s New Academic Standards

In January 1983, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) adopted new academic standards for students participating in intercollegiate sports in the top competitive division (Division I). Effective August 1, 1986, freshman athletes at Division I institutions are eligible to play only if they have:

1. A high school cumulative grade point average of at least 2.0 on a 4.0 scale;
2. A 2.0 cumulative grade point average in a specified high school curriculum consisting of eleven academic courses, including at least three in English, two in Mathematics, two in Social Science, and two in Natural or Physical Science (including at least one laboratory class if available at the school);
3. A combined score of at least 700 on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) or 15 on the American College Test (ACT).

Students who have an overall cumulative grade point average of 2.0 or above but who fail to meet the other standards can receive athletic scholarships but may not play or practice with a team during their freshman year. Moreover, such a student uses up one year of eligibility during that freshman year. These new “get tough” standards were adopted at the January 1983 NCAA annual meeting following heated debate. The higher standards proposal was introduced by L. Donald Shields, president of Southern Methodist University. Some twenty college presidents or chancellors spoke in favor of adopting the standards. The proponents pointed out that the existing standards were being abused by both high schools and colleges. It was contended that high schools graduated athletes unprepared for college work, while colleges restructured their curricula in order to keep athletes eligible. These abuses had in turn led to an intolerable degree of illiteracy among college athletes, many of whom never graduated from col- lege. The backers of the proposal viewed the vote as a referendum on the integrity of both the NCAA and higher education generally. The dramatic denouement for the reform advocates occurred when Joe Paterno, the well-known and generally respected football coach of Penn State, the reigning national champion, addressed the meeting to express support for the proposal and to rebut the charges of its opponents that the standards are racially discriminatory. The new rules were opposed by several black college presi- dents who contended that the rules are a racially motivated at tempt to reduce the number of black athletes competing at the Division I level. Jesse N. Stone, Jr., president of Southern University, was particularly incensed at the inclusion of the standardized test score cutoff, pointing out that the use of such tests has a disproportionately negative impact on black students. Edward B. Fort, chancellor at North Carolina A & T University, charged that the test does not predict success in college. In the end, the measures were approved by a hand vote of the Division I members.

. . .

Read More

Ray Yasser, The Black Athletes’ Equal Protection Case Against the NCAA’s New Academic Standards, 19 Gonz. L. Rev. 83 (1983).

Comments are closed.