April 9, 1999
Fewer Black Athletes, but
More-Successful Black Students
POINT OF VIEW: Weaker NCAA Standards Won't
Help Black Athletes
Fight Over NCAA Standards Reflects Long-Standing
Which should be paramount: academic quality
or the impact of rules on black students?
By WELCH SUGGS
St. Petersburg, Fla. The battle over academic
standards for college athletes is being fought over people like
A skinny, 6-foot-8 forward on the University
of Connecticut's basketball team, Mr. Saunders's first season
of college basketball came to a magnificent end last month. Mr.
Saunders came off the bench to score four points and grab three
rebounds in the Huskies' upset victory over Duke University in
the National Collegiate Athletic Association's Division I championship
Mr. Saunders may be a first-year player, but
he's a sophomore at Connecticut. Because he did not score high
enough on the SAT or ACT to satisfy the N.C.A.A.'s standards (he
wouldn't reveal his exact scores), Mr. Saunders sat out last season.
"It made me appreciate basketball more," he said.
"Getting used to social life, to campus -- it really was helpful."
Proposition 16, the rule that kept Mr. Saunders
out of basketball last year, is now in legal limbo. After a federal
judge in Philadelphia ruled last month that the N.C.A.A.'s standards
discriminate against black athletes, a three-judge panel of the
U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit last week stayed the
ruling, pending an appeal by the N.C.A.A.
The association plans to spend the spring and
summer considering alternative standards, so that it can have
a new plan in place by September 1.
The issues raised by the Proposition 16 debate
are not new. Since universities began sponsoring intercollegiate
athletics, they have squabbled over what standards, if any, they
should use to insure that college athletes are students, too.
"If you talk to university presidents, like I
do, you will see that they are committed to maintaining academic
standards and academic integrity," said Graham B. Spanier, president
of Pennsylvania State University and chairman of the N.C.A.A.'s
Division I Board of Directors. "Many of us remember the time 15
or 20 years ago when standards weren't in place, and none of us
wants to go back to the 'bad old days.'"
The question, however, is whether the effort
to raise standards is locking out too many black athletes who
could benefit from a college education, according to John Chaney,
men's basketball coach at Temple University.
"The vast majority of those disappointed youngsters
[who didn't meet the standards] were black, and the N.C.A.A. legislated
them out of college," said Mr. Chaney in an opinion piece in The
New York Times last month. "How could distinguished educators,
responsible for the futures of young people, have approved such
a measure? Obviously, they weren't thinking about the young men
A few-hundred first-year athletes each year find
themselves sidelined like Mr. Saunders. Those who are close to
meeting N.C.A.A. standards are allowed to receive scholarships
and practice, and those who are not close are forced to pay their
own way, attend junior colleges, or stay out of college entirely.
A disproportionate number are black: In 1997, 21.4 per cent of
black prospective athletes were ruled ineligible, compared with
just 4.2 per cent of white athletes, according to the N.C.A.A.
Over the past 16 years, the N.C.A.A. has steadily
toughened academic requirements for athletes in an attempt to
rid college sports of its image as a haven for dumb jocks who
have no hope of graduating.
Under Proposition 16, athletes must achieve a
certain score on the SAT or ACT in combination with certain grade-point
averages in 13 high-school core courses, based on a sliding scale.
An athlete with a grade-point average of 2.5 must score 820 (of
a possible 1,600) on the SAT or 68 (of a possible 144) on the
sum of the four components of the ACT. A player with a grade-point
average of 2.0 must score 1,010 on the SAT or 86 on the ACT.
The N.C.A.A. began using standardized-test scores
in the 1980s in order to minimize its dependency on high-school
grades, Mr. Spanier said. High schools have varying standards,
and high-school teachers or coaches can manipulate grades to the
advantage of athletes.
"All of us know that there is such a phenomenon
as grade inflation," Mr. Spanier said. "Standards differ wildly
from one school to another and one state to another. If we lose
the test score, we lose the one metric we have that does help
level the playing field a bit in understanding someone's qualifications."
Proposition 16 is only the latest attempt by
the N.C.A.A. to maintain academic standards. In 1965, the association
established the "1.6 rule," which required universities to limit
athletics eligibility to those students who were predicted to
get at least a 1.6 grade-point average during their first year
in college. Those predictions were based on how other students
with similar test scores and high-school grade-point averages
performed once they got to college, and predictions for each university
were different. At the time, freshmen were ineligible for varsity
competition, but the N.C.A.A. abolished that rule in 1972.
The next year, the N.C.A.A. abandoned the 1.6
rule for a flat requirement that athletes have a 2.0 grade-point
average when they graduate from high school. That rule persisted
until 1983, when, in response to public outcry about illiterate
athletes participating in college sports, the N.C.A.A. passed
Proposition 48. That rule, which went into effect in 1986, required
athletes to maintain a 2.0 grade-point average in 11 core courses
in high school, and to have scored above 700 (out of 1,600) on
the SAT, or 15 (out of 36) on the composite ACT.
Since Proposition 48 went into effect, many more
black athletes than white athletes have failed to meet the standards,
and have been forced out of college sports for a year, or for
good. The number of black freshmen on Division I teams fell 18
per cent, to 3,041, in 1986, the year Proposition 48 took effect.
The number of white freshmen athletes actually grew slightly,
from 9,048 to 9,135.
The N.C.A.A. does not have adequate data to confirm
whether secondary schools have responded to the new rules by doing
a better job of preparing black athletes for entrance requirements
in the intervening years. If the schools were doing a better job,
one would expect the number of black college athletes to have
recovered from 1986 to the present.
Of athletes entering N.C.A.A. Division I colleges
in 1996, the year the current standards took effect, 20.3 per
cent were black. That represented a drop of 3.3 percentage points
The number of athletes who were declared ineligible
by the N.C.A.A.'s Initial-Eligibility Clearinghouse, an office
that certifies athletes' eligibility based on grades and test
scores, rose sharply from 1995 to 1996. But fewer athletes were
declared ineligible over the past two years, according to N.C.A.A.
statistics. The trend held true for black, white, and Hispanic
athletes, although a much larger proportion of black athletes
was declared ineligible.
The N.C.A.A.'s academic requirements have clearly
achieved one goal: Graduation rates for all athletes -- and for
black athletes in particular -- have risen considerably since
1986. Fifty-seven per cent of freshman athletes who entered Division
I universities in 1991 graduated within six years. Forty-four
per cent of black athletes graduated. By comparison, for the class
that entered college in 1985 -- the year before the N.C.A.A. implemented
SAT and ACT requirements -- 52 per cent of all athletes, and 36
per cent of black athletes, graduated within six years. Both the
number and the proportion of black athletes earning degrees has
continued to climb in the years since.
In his decision last month in Cureton, et al.
v. National Collegiate Athletic Association, Judge Ronald L. Buckwalter
ruled that, even though graduation rates were improving, the N.C.A.A.'s
use of score requirements on the SAT and ACT was arbitrary and
unfairly discriminated against black athletes. That position has
long been held by opponents of standardized tests.
"The problem with using the SAT as a cutoff is
that a student who scores 10 points lower is exactly the same
as one who scores 10 points higher," said Jay Rosner, executive
director of the Princeton Review Foundation, the philanthropic
arm of the New York-based test-preparation company. "We have the
sorts of situations represented by the plaintiffs in this case,
where they finished relatively high in their class, had relatively
good G.P.A.'s, and low SAT scores. You can have students who do
very well in the classroom -- but very poorly on standardized
tests -- who do well in college."
The N.C.A.A. is considering three basic alternatives
to the current standards under Proposition 16. Model 2, as it
is known (Proposition 16 is Model 1), would lower the minimum
cutoff score on the SAT to 720, and require corresponding higher
grade-point averages in the 13 core courses to offset the lower
scores. Model 3 would lower the SAT minimum to 600, and expand
the sliding scale to require even higher grade-point averages.
Model 4 would do away with the minimum cutoff
altogether, allowing anyone who has taken the SAT or ACT to play
sports, as long as he or she achieved correspondingly high grade-point
averages in core courses. Under Model 4, a student with a 400
on the SAT, its minimum score, could compete if he or she had
a grade-point average of 3.25.
Model 4 has drawn the endorsement of Mr. Rosner;
Andre L. Dennis, one of the Cureton plaintiffs' lawyers; and other
experts. It permits the continued use of the SAT and does not
draw arbitrary distinctions between students with very close test
scores. But Cedric W. Dempsey, the N.C.A.A.'s president, said
he thought university presidents and faculty members would be
suspicious of admitting athletes with extremely low scores on
Basketball coaches and athletics officials attending
the Final Four had a variety of thoughts on what sort of standards
the N.C.A.A. should employ. Denny Crum, the men's coach at the
University of Louisville, and Roy Williams, men's coach at the
University of Kansas, both spoke in favor of eliminating freshman
eligibility again. They noted, however, that the N.C.A.A. would
also need to raise the limit on men's basketball scholarships
from the current 13 to 15 or 16, so that coaches could field competitive
teams even with freshman athletes on the bench.
"There's a window to discuss that," said James
A. Delany, commissioner of the Big Ten Conference. Mr. Spanier
of Penn State, however, said that the proposal was unlikely to
gain much support among college presidents.
Coaches also spoke in favor of placing more emphasis
on the N.C.A.A.'s requirements for continuing progress toward
a degree. Currently, the N.C.A.A. requires that athletes complete
25 per cent of the coursework toward their degree before beginning
their third year of college competition, and 50 per cent of coursework
before their fourth year of competition.
Harry Edwards, a sociologist at the University
of California at Berkeley, said the N.C.A.A. should strengthen
those requirements by providing financial incentives to universities
that keep athletes on track to graduate. Universities owe it to
athletes to insure that they get an education, he said.
"There's no question that the challenge is there,
but colleges and universities are making millions of dollars off
of these young people's football and basketball abilities," he
However, as Mr. Spanier pointed out, university
presidents are unlikely to scale back entrance requirements for
"Almost everyone believes that academic integrity
is extremely important and that some uniform standard for initial
eligibility is necessary," he said. "Today, on average, student
athletes graduate at a higher rate than the rest of the student
body. That is a goal higher education should not abandon."
Suggs, Welch. "Fight oner NCAA standards reflects long-standing dilemma." Chronicle of Higher Education. 9 Apr 1999. For Fee$$ http://chronicle.com/cgi2-bin/texis/chronicle/search