Posted on January 19, 2021

Lawsuit by HBCU Athletes Fights What It Calls NCAA’s Systemic Racism

Derrick Jackson, The Undefeated, January 15, 2021

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.


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.

{snip} 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?”


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.


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. {snip}

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. {snip}


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.

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.