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

By Derrick Z. Jackson | ESPN’s The Undefeated


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?”

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