Setback for NCAA Discrimination Case

K-12 Testing

In a 2 - 1 ruling, a federal appeals panel has reversed a lower court decision throwing out the test-score based initial eligibility rule imposed by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) on its member institutions.


The Appeals Court focused solely on procedural grounds and did not address the issue of “unjustified disparate impact against African-Americans” which had led Federal Judge Ronald Buckwalter to strike down the NCAA rule last March (see Examiner, Spring 1999).


Under NCAA Proposition 16, students must exceed arbitrarily determined minimum test scores in order to qualify for interscholastic sports or athletic scholarships. Cureton vs NCAA, a class action suit on behalf of African-American students developed from FairTest research, challenged the rule as racially biased and not justified academically (see Examiner, Winter 1997-1998).


Rather than question Judge Buckwalter’s conclusion that “the racially adverse impact caused by the SAT cutoff score is not justified by an legitimate educational necessity,” a violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, the appeals court majority ruled that participation rules for NCAA sports are not covered by that U.S. law. Using a narrow reading of the statute, Congressional intent, and legal precedent, the two judges found that the anti-discrimination regulations of Title VI apply only to specific activities receiving taxpayer funds, such as a summer youth program run by the NCAA, but not to the entire organization. The decision is even more unusual since NCAA lawyers had devoted only two paragraphs of their 60-page appeals argument to this seemingly minor issue.


Unfortunately the full Circuit Court declined to review the Appeals panel's decision.


Plaintiffs are now considering taking the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. In the interim, the NCAA's test score requirements remain in effect.


Meanwhile, the NCAA did alter one "standard" by expanding its definition of high school core courses used in determining eligibility for college competition. Many non-traditional subjects will now count, and high school principals, not an NCAA committee, will have primary responsibility for certifying compliance.


Given the NCAA's history, it is probably no accident that the core-course revision, albeit well-justified, largely benefits affluent, white students, while the rigid test score requirement continues to harm African American youth.


The Appeals Court decision is posted at: