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NCAA must stop perpetuating academic and financial disparities for HBCUs

Penalties highlight patterns of inequities that cannot be ignored


In The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin warned a nephew that America “set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you should perish.”

It is time to ask that about the NCAA and its annual flogging of athletic programs among historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

Once more, HBCUs accounted for nearly all of the teams banned from Division I postseason play for poor academic performance: Alabama A&M, Alabama State, Coppin State, Delaware State, Grambling State, Howard University, Prairie View A&M and Southern University all had at least one team banned. All those schools, along with HBCUs Bethune-Cookman and South Carolina State, also received other penalties.

The only predominantly white institutions (PWIs) with postseason bans were Stephen F. Austin and McNeese State. The only other school that received any kind of penalty was Chicago State University, which might as well be an HBCU as 75% of its undergraduates are black.

It was a near rerun of three years ago, when Alabama A&M, Grambling, Howard, Southern and Prairie View A&M also received bans and penalties, along with the HBCUs Morgan State, Savannah State and Florida A&M. The only banned or penalized teams from schools where white students are the lead demographic were Southeast Missouri State and the University of Illinois-Chicago.

The year before that, seven HBCUs accounted for 22 of the 23 teams being banned from competing for championships and bowl appearances. The only team from a predominantly white school to receive a postseason ban was Virginia Military Institute’s men’s track squad.

Is the NCAA spinning a false narrative?

Many academic and policy analysts say HBCUs have been set in a Division I ghetto, where they are perishing. Born out of segregation and today still serving the critical mission of providing black students a less costly and more caring social, cultural and academic environment than on many predominantly white campuses, HBCUs often take students from tougher K-12 environments, with far fewer resources. But the NCAA’s system in effect punishes them for that.

Billy Hawkins, a professor in the Department of Health and Human Performance at the University of Houston and author of The New Plantation: Black Athletes, College Sports, and Predominantly White NCAA Institutions, and co-author of The Athletic Experience at Historically Black Colleges and Universities: Past, Present, and Persistence, says the consistent pattern of punishment “not only reinforces a stereotype of intellectual inferiority about black athletes, but it also paints HBCUs themselves as intellectually inferior. It is paramount that this end.”

According to the NCAA’s May 19 press release, the failing teams did not meet metrics the governing body of college sports established in its reform attempts of the early 2000s. The top metric is a 930 score on what it calls the Academic Progress Rate (APR). It is a complicated calculation that is supposedly the rough equivalent of a 50% graduation rate. It is based on a four-year average of points earned for how many players on a team finish a term academically eligible, how many are ineligible, how many leave the institution (such as in going pro) while academically eligible and how many leave while flunking out.

The NCAA says the APR is part of a “more contemporary and accurate measure of a team’s academic success.” But based on the singling out of HBCUs, it has become more like the SAT for college entry, less a predictor of future success than a restrictive marker of current wealth.

Monique Ositelu is an independent data analyst and senior policy analyst specializing in higher education at New America, a Washington think tank that focuses on equity across technology, education and representative government. She says the NCAA should stop holding all universities, with their wildly divergent resources, missions and commitments to black students, to one standard. In one policy brief, she estimates that an HBCU has only a 63% probability of meeting the 930 APR, compared with 99% for a non-HBCU.

She suggests that the NCAA could replace the APR with a program that determines a team’s eligibility for the postseason on whether, say, at least 80% of current players are making timely progress toward a degree. She says that would be much fairer to the overall mission of HBCUs, which actually do a better job at educating students from the most difficult backgrounds. The Education Trust found in a 2017 report that HBCUs had higher completion rates for low-income students than PWIs with significant percentages of low-income students.

“Right now, it’s just an unfair system where HBCUs don’t have access to all that a predominantly white institution does,” Ositelu said. “It’s embedded in the infrastructure, where a lot of resourced schools can virtually hold an athlete’s hand and walk him into class. HBCUs don’t have that. They might not have things [that are] taken for granted at other universities, like traveling tutors.”

Ryan Westman, director of academic and student-athlete support services at New York University, co-signs what Ositelu says. He did his 2018 doctoral thesis at Seton Hall University on the impact of the APR on HBCUs, concluding that the impact was so disparate that it contradicted any claims by the NCAA that the APR is “grounded in the spirit of equity and respect for philosophical differences.”

In an interview, Westman was more blunt: “It’s a sin that the penalties are so skewed when HBCUs’ mission is grounded in access to low-income and first-generation students. It’s not their fault that many other schools live in a world of revenue generation, paying coaches close to eight figures [Clemson and Alabama each pay their head football coaches $9 million a year, more than the entire athletic budget of HBCU Jackson State].

“It screams inequity when HBCUs were once so woven into the fabric of American sports. The Morgan States, Gramblings, FAMUs [Florida A&M] and Southerns were producing so many stars like the Jerry Rices before the Bear Bryants started changing their philosophies. It’s like the system is turning its back on HBCUs when these schools need support.”

The financial inequities are apparent

To its credit, the NCAA has given grants as high as $900,000 to HBCUs for academic support for athletes. But that amount instantly shrivels in significance when one considers that amount would cover the spending on just three athletes at schools such as Louisiana State University (LSU), which spends $315,000 per athlete or the University of Texas at Austin, which spends $368,000 per athlete, according to the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics database.

The University of Alabama spends nine times more per athlete than Alabama A&M, and LSU spends seven times more per athlete than Grambling or Southern, and Texas spends seven times more money than Prairie View A&M.

One stark result is that while Alabama lists 17 staffers in athletic academic and student supports, Alabama A&M lists two academic enhancement staffers and Alabama State lists three academic support specialists. The lack of resources for student-athletes at HBCUs is so obvious, celebrities and former athletes held a stream-a-thon to get HBCU student-athletes laptops during the coronavirus lockdowns. Former Clark Atlanta University basketball coach George Lynch offered his team as a prime example, saying he had nine players with 3.0 GPAs or higher, but when campuses emptied because of the pandemic, six of those players went home without laptops, but were expected to learn online.

Last year, when several Savannah State teams were hit with bans or penalties, former athletic director Sterling Steward Jr. told the Savannah Morning News that there was no question that things could have been done better under his watch. But he also said that for HBCUs to be held to the same academic standards was like asking a small bank to compete against Wells Fargo. He said the rules lay “a heavy hand” on institutions that are easy to blame. “But if you’re looking for the fix,” he said, “it’s the NCAA.”

There should also be penalties, such as loss of scholarships, for schools that stubbornly harbor poor graduation rates for black men at between 50% and 65% while achieving perfection or near perfection for white players.

For the NCAA to fix the problem, Steward says, it has to stop profiling HBCUs and pulling them over inordinately for violations, and stop being Officer Friendly to PWIs. Too many PWIs flash overall Graduation Success Rates of at least 50% and APRs of at least 930, knowing the NCAA never pops the trunk to reveal the reeking racial disparities.

I have been reviewing the graduation rates of college football bowl teams and March Madness basketball tournament teams since the mid-1990s. I would also ban from postseason play these teams because of their poor efforts at graduating their African American student-athletes, such as:

  • Wisconsin’s men’s basketball team, which has posted a zero Graduation Success Rate (GSR) for black players twice in the last six years, while the white rate was 88% and 67% in those years.
  • UCLA’s men’s basketball team, which for the last five years has had black GSRs of 25%, 40%, 20%, 17% and 33%. The average of 27% was dwarfed by the 84% average GSR for white players in that span.
  • Oklahoma State’s football team, which has been under 50% for black men the last four years.
  • East Tennessee State’s basketball team, which for the last two years has posted identical 46% graduation rates for black players and 100% for white players.

There should also be penalties, such as loss of scholarships, for schools that stubbornly harbor poor graduation rates for black men at between 50% and 65% while achieving perfection or near perfection for white players. Recent GSR cases that highlight this point:

  • Louisiana Tech’s last three years of between 49% and 59% for black players and no lower than 92% for white players.
  • Ohio State’s last three years of being between 56 and 59% for black players and no lower than 82% for white players.
  • LSU’s last six years of a 62.5% average for black players and an 89% average for white players.
  • Abilene Christian’s average GSR for the last three years being 37% for black basketball players and 42% for black football players, while white basketball and football players enjoy a respective 83% and 80% GSR average.

The NCAA did not respond to an email request to explain why APR penalties seem to almost solely land on HBCUs, or the lack of sanctions for PWIs with massive and chronic graduation rate gaps between black players and white players.

“We should never forget that black athletes are the backbone of these revenue-generating sports,” Hawkins said, referring to the fact that more than half of Division I scholarship basketball and football players are African American in a nation that is 13% black. “No one is kidding anyone about the mentality that operates on many of these big-time programs. No one is saying as a general rule to the typical black athlete, ‘Go get that cum laude.’ No, they’re saying, ‘Get us to that bowl game.’ ”

Baldwin, in that letter to his nephew, wrote, “The details and symbols of your life have been deliberately constructed to make you believe what white people say about you.” By detailing the sins of HBCUs and making them the symbol of student-athlete failure, it has indeed constructed a modern ghetto, to the screaming roar of the crowd.

Predominantly white universities in Division I have the resources to hold an athlete’s hand — when they want to. HBCUs, which have proven themselves to actually be better at holding the hand of the most challenging students, are told they have to do the job with hands tied behind their backs.

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.