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Lawsuit by HBCU athletes fights what it calls NCAA’s systemic racism

The class-action suit says the organization’s academic standards are discriminatory and unjustly penalize programs

Black athletes have launched a legal assault on what they are calling the chronic bias by the NCAA. Last month in federal court in Indianapolis, a lawsuit was filed alleging the governing body of college sports singles out historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) for bans from postseason play in Division I, the highest level of competition.

The class-action suit, filed on behalf of three former and recent HBCU athletes at Savannah State and Howard universities, centers on NCAA rules that say a sports program must maintain about a 50% graduation rate to qualify for postseason tournaments, championships and bowl games. The NCAA imposes that standard on programs regardless of a school’s mission or its resources.

The standard, along with other NCAA standards going back four decades to Proposition 48’s minimum SAT scores to recruit players, has long proven to penalize Black athletes and HBCUs. As academic scandals prodded more resourced predominantly white institutions (PWIs) to either genuinely educate all their athletes or cynically game the system to maintain eligibility, many HBCUs have been shut out altogether.

HBCUs were born out of segregation and have never enjoyed the resources of a typical public or private PWI. Yet, they maintain a mission to serve students most in need or want of affordable and racially supportive environments, with studies showing that they in fact ultimately graduate higher percentages of African American students when factoring in social and economic backgrounds.

The strain of doing the most with the least constantly has HBCUs on the razor’s edge of eligibility. HBCUs represent only 6% of the 350 schools that compete at Division I. But over the last six years, they have accounted for 82%, or four of every five teams banned by the NCAA for poor academics.

Jessica Meeder, another attorney filing the lawsuit, said, “HBCUs serve the people most at risk of being left behind, and the NCAA is leaving them behind even further.” Another attorney partnering on the lawsuit, Je Yon Jung, said, “People are using the term ‘systemic racism’ a lot but are not really sure what that means. This is an example. How can HBCUs be so few of the teams in Division I and account for so many of the penalties?”

“When you see the data that an HBCU is 43 times more likely to be penalized, this is not about education. It’s about pretext.” – attorney Jessica Meeder

LaRuby May, another attorney in the lawsuit, likened the NCAA’s system to the divide between public hospitals that serve the poorest of the poor and well-endowed private institutions. She should know, as she is also chairwoman of the beleaguered United Medical Center in Washington, which is slated to be shuttered as the city struggles to deliver adequate health care to low-income African Americans.

HBCUs account for so many of the penalties because the NCAA is de facto punishing them for their very mission of supporting Black students, as PWIs treat Black athletes far more as commodities. State public flagships and prestigious private colleges in particular play a two-faced game with Black students. On one hand, selective admissions are a form of suppression, stifling general Black enrollment well under the Black population percentages in the states they serve. Then they turn around and operate majority Black football and basketball factories, pouring infinite resources into keeping players academically eligible.

The disparities are stunning

Take the two teams that played in this week’s national championship. The state of Alabama is 27% Black, but Black enrollment at the University of Alabama is only 11%. Yet in the current NCAA graduation rates report, 70% of its scholarship football and men’s basketball players are Black. The state of Ohio is 13% Black, but Ohio State University is 7.4% Black. Yet 59% of its scholarship football and men’s basketball players are Black.

Alabama boasts 23 people involved with academic support and compliance with NCAA rules. That is nearly eight times more staff involved with those vital tasks than at HBCU Alabama A&M, which had three programs banned from postseason play in 2020-21. Alabama A&M has a mere three staffers for academics and compliance.

Ohio State lists 46 staffers in academic support and compliance. HBCU Prairie View A&M, which had its football team banned from the postseason this season, has only six staffers in the same roles. Even as prestigious Howard University enjoys the glow from producing the nation’s first Black vice president, its football team was banned from bowl games this season. It has just seven academic support and compliance staffers.

Besides Howard, Prairie View and Alabama A&M, Alabama State, Bethune-Cookman, Coppin State, Delaware State, Grambling and Southern had teams banned for 2020-21 postseason competition for poor academics. The banned HBCU athletic departments have an average of five academic support and compliance staff. The four teams that vied for the national football championship, Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson and Notre Dame, had an average of 28, more than five times more human resources.

That very same system also lets PWIs off the hook for their disparate education of Black and white athletes. I long supported 50% graduation rates for postseason eligibility in my 25-year-old Graduation Gap Bowl, first for the Boston Globe, and now for The Undefeated. But because of the sordid history of colleges exploiting Black athletes, I also have long insisted that teams at PWIs should still be banned if the Black player graduation rate chronically remains under 50%.

Spending gaps hamper HBCUs, too

That ratio corresponds quite stunningly with the huge gap between PWIs and HBCUs in spending on athletes. The per-athlete spending at the public HBCUs with banned teams ranges from the $28,894 at Alabama A&M to the $52,000 of Prairie View, according to the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics database. The per-athlete spending at national champion Alabama is $255,000. Clemson spends $223,000. Ohio State spends $194,000. In the Associated Press Top 10, per-athlete spending goes as high as $281,000 at Florida and $263,000 at Oklahoma.

The reason is that many schools stay eligible by papering over low graduation rates of Black players with perfect or nearly perfect graduation rates for white players. For instance, Louisiana Tech played in the New Orleans Bowl last month with a Graduation Success Rate of 45% for Black players and 90% for white players.

“People are using the term ‘systemic racism’ a lot but are not really sure what that means. This is an example. How can HBCUs be so few of the teams in Division I and account for so many of the penalties?” – attorney Je Yon Jung

Of the 58 bowl teams, 22 had racial graduation rate gaps of at least 20 percentage points. In what I have labeled the NCAA’s “Three-Fifths Compromise,” harkening back to when the South was allowed to count enslaved people as three-fifths of a person to boost representation in Congress, many teams graduate about 60% of their Black players while graduating nearly all of their white players. Besides the 45-point percentage gap of Louisiana Tech, teams with at least 30 percentage-point gaps were Ohio State, Army, Houston, Miami, Arkansas, Mississippi, West Virginia and San Jose State.

All the while, HBCU teams, which are 43 times more likely to be banned from postseason play than a PWI, according to the lawsuit, are compromised, with individual athletes harmed in the process. In the lawsuit, former Savannah State basketball players Troyce Manassa and Austin Dasent and J’TA Freeman, a member of the 2020 Howard University women’s lacrosse team, say they were blindsided by the bans. As postseason bans limit a program’s publicity and revenues, the suit alleges that they also damage student-athletes’ visibility to either continue their sport professionally or go into sports-related careers, such as becoming a coach or trainer.

Manassa was the 2017 senior team captain at Savannah State when his team was banned from postseason play. He told NPR that not being able to finish his college career on the big stage “caused me a lot of emotional distress.” The lawsuit asks for compensation for athletes on such banned teams along with an end to the current academic progress system for all colleges.

It would be a welcome end, both to get HBCUs out of a discriminatory doghouse and to unleash the dogs on PWIs that in broad daylight value Black bodies more for profit on the field and court than for their intellect in the classroom. Meeder said, “When you see the data that an HBCU is 43 times more likely to be penalized, this is not about education. It’s about pretext.” It is pretext for the PWIs to get away with systemic exploitation.

Derrick Z. Jackson is a Pulitzer finalist, 10-time winner from the National Association of Black Journalists and a 2018 winner from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists for his work for The Undefeated. He co-authored Project Puffin: The Improbable Quest to Bring a Beloved Seabird Back to Egg Rock.