By Carter Floyd
On December 10, 2020, three historically black colleges and university (HBCU) student-athletes filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana against the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), its Board of Governors, and its Board of Directors on behalf of all HBCU student-athletes. The plaintiffs claim that the NCAA’s Academic Performance Program for regulating postseason eligibility unfairly discriminates against Black students at HBCUs.
The plaintiffs argue that the NCAA’s academic policies are in violation of the District of Columbia Human Rights Act, which protects against discrimination in educational institutions, as well as the NCAA’s own Constitution, which states that the organization “shall promote an atmosphere of respect for and sensitivity to the dignity of every person.”
The plaintiffs allege that these policies have caused irreparable harm including, but not limited to, emotional distress, lost benefits, and loss of future earning potential.
Overview of the NCAA’s Academic Performance Program
The NCAA’s Academic Performance Program (APP)—a key component of the plaintiffs’ allegations—was implemented in 2004 and is comprised of three components: (1) Academic Progress Rate (APR), (2) Graduation Success Rate (GSR), and (3) Academic Performance Census (APC).
NCAA evaluation of academic eligibility is primarily based on APR. A program’s APR measures the eligibility and academic retention of its players. Points are awarded every semester for the academic eligibility, graduation, and retention of each individual player. A team’s total APR point value is divided by the number of total possible points to calculate the final APR score. All programs must maintain a four-year rolling average APR score of 930 (93% of possible points) or higher to avoid APP penalties.
While past iterations of the NCAA’s academic performance requirements (e.g., GPA minimums for incoming high school recruits, minimum SAT scores, etc.) only punished individual athletes for low scores, penalties related to APR performance are applied to entire programs. These APR penalties are organized into three tiers depending on the severity and frequency of violations, ranging from reduced weekly practice hours (for a level one offense) all the way up to reductions in financial aid and postseason bans (for a level three offense). These penalties are cumulative.
The APP and its associated metrics were developed by the NCAA Division I Committee of Academics, which reports directly to the NCAA Board of Governors.
Specifics of Plaintiffs’ Claims
According to the complaint, the APP has had a “disparate impact” on HBCU athletic programs, citing the fact that HBCUs account for just 6.5% (23 of 350) of NCAA Division I schools, but 72% (114 of 150) of programs that have been banned from postseason competition since 2010.
They argue that because students at HBCUs are more likely to be low-income, first-generation college students, or otherwise at-risk, HBCUs are at a significant institutional disadvantage relative to the predominantly white institutions (PWIs) that make up the bulk of the NCAA’s constituency. Additionally, HBCUs often have significantly fewer resources to invest in academic support staff and educational infrastructure for their athletes. This disparity, they argue, is exacerbated by penalties imposed under the APP, which can include partial loss of financial aid and reductions in the number of games a program can play, which limit revenue-generating opportunities that could fund academic infrastructure.
While the APP is a nonnegotiable condition of NCAA membership for HBCUs, the plaintiffs point out that the NCAA has granted major exceptions to its academic eligibility requirements for PWIs in major revenue generating conferences (those frequently referred to as the “Power Five” or “Autonomy Five”). These exceptions have not been granted to HBCUs.
Additionally, the plaintiffs outline a thorough history of alleged institutional discrimination against Black students in higher education in the United States, from the formation of land grant colleges with the Second Morrill Act of 1890 to the “separate but equal” doctrine legitimized in Plessy v. Ferguson. They claim that the NCAA’s academic eligibility requirements, from their onset, were a continuation of this same type of educational discrimination.
One key piece of evidence the plaintiffs point to is that the NCAA’s first academic eligibility requirements were approved in 1965, at the height of the civil rights movement as the first HBCUs were integrating into the NCAA. Prior to this, they claim, the NCAA had few, if any rules governing academic eligibility for its athletes. While the rules have been amended multiple times in the intervening decades, the plaintiffs include testimony from several sources, including an HBCU president, a former President of the College Board, and former NCAA Chair of Academic Performance Dr. Walter Harrison, arguing that these policies have always disproportionately affected Black student-athletes, particularly those at HBCUs.
They also cite an NCAA-commissioned study from 1998 that found that 80% of athletes affected by its academic eligibility requirements at the time were Black, suggesting that the NCAA was aware of the disparate impact of its policies and still elected not to change them.
The plaintiffs argue that, collectively, this evidence demonstrates a pattern of ongoing institutional discrimination against Black athletes at HBCUs by the NCAA in its academic performance policies—discrimination they argue has caused irreparable harm to HBCU student-athletes as well as Black student-athletes at non-HBCUs that might have otherwise attended an HBCU if not for APP-related postseason bans.
This suit was filed on behalf of all current and former athletes who participated on Division I HBCU athletic teams that were subject to a postseason ban from the 2010-2011 athletic season through the date of class certification. They also reserve the right to include additional subclasses pursuant to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 23(a), 23(b)(2), 23(b)(3), and/or 23(c)(4) pending discovery, and request that the case be tried by a jury.
A judge must now review the plaintiffs’ complaint and determine whether it meets all the prerequisites for class certification outlined in Rule 23 of the Indiana Rules of Trial Procedure. If the case is certified, it will move into the discovery phase wherein lawyers representing both sides may request documents from the NCAA. After this, the parties may either reach a settlement or continue to a jury trial.
The plaintiffs are seeking compensatory, statutory, and punitive damages for themselves and all other classes and subclasses named in the complaint, as well as injunctive relief in the form of systemic changes to the NCAA’s academic eligibility policies. If the court finds in favor of the plaintiffs, it could represent a significant blow to the NCAA’s governance and potentially call into question the efficacy of the organization’s other related policies.Carter Floyd is a doctoral student at Florida State University who studies Big Data analytics in sport performance and student-athlete development.