A proposed class action claims the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Academic Performance Program is racially biased and disproportionately penalizes student-athletes at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).
Filed against the NCAA, its board of governors, and its Division I board of directors, the 58-page lawsuit claims that while the Academic Performance Program (APP) was purportedly designed to address allegations of discrimination against earlier iterations of the NCAA’s academic requirements for student-athletes, the program “has yielded the very results the NCAA stated it intended to correct and avoid.”
According to the lawsuit, the NCAA knew the newly reformed APP, which allowed an entire team to be penalized for its members’ academic performance by restricting practice time or banning the team from postseason play, included metrics that would continue to disproportionately punish Black student-athletes yet “implemented it anyway” as another so-called academic reform in the organization’s “long history of discriminating against Black student-athletes and teams at HBCUs.”
“The NCCA’s adoption and continued enforcement of the APP, including its penalty structure and postseason access bans, together with the NCAA’s prior academic propositions and reforms, represent a pattern or practice of intentional discrimination against Black student-athletes at HBCUs on the basis of race,” the complaint scathes.
The lawsuit out of Indiana’s Southern District Court explains that when a student-athlete has selected a Division I school to attend, they sign a National Letter of Intent (NLI) that bounds them to NCAA bylaws and regulations, including academic requirements. Past iterations of NCAA’s academic requirements, which were supposedly intended to “bolster sagging student-athlete academic performance,” were criticized for having a disparate effect on Black student-athletes, yet grew increasingly stricter over the years, according to the complaint.
The 2004 APP marked the first time an entire team, as opposed to individual members, could be penalized based on its members’ academic performance, the case explains. Per the complaint, penalties imposed on teams can include restricted practice time, a reduction of the season or contests, and a “menu” of other ramifications, such as financial aid penalties and multiyear postseason competition bans.
According to the lawsuit, a higher proportion of HBCU teams have been subject to APP penalties than those from predominantly white institutions (PWIs). The suit posits that the design and implementation of the program perpetuates a system that punishes Black student-athletes at HBCUs because of the schools’ role in focusing on “a community that has been historically left behind” and largely enrolling low-income, first-generation, and historically disadvantaged Black students.
HBCU teams are 43 times more likely to receive a postseason competition ban than PWI teams, the suit says, adding that while just 6.5 percent of NCAA Division I schools are HBCUs, 72 percent of teams banned from postseason competition since 2010 are from HBCUs.
The case goes on to argue that lower resources alone cannot account for the disparity in APP metrics between HBCUs and PWIs, citing a 2018 study that evaluated whether race or low resources led to greater APP penalties. Per the complaint, the study compared HBCUs to similarly resourced non-HBCUs and concluded that HBCUs were six to eight times more likely to be penalized.
“Ultimately the study concluded that race—the mere fact that an institution is an HBCU—is a predictor of APP penalties,” the lawsuit reads. “Resources are not.”
Moreover, the lawsuit claims that aside from penalizing HBCUs through the APP, the NCAA now grants financial awards to schools that meet a certain threshold of academic performance and graduation rates, which the case argues is simply a way to award PWIs.
All told, the case claims NCAA’s academic requirements have injured Black student-athletes by restricting access to highly televised postseason events, which would have afforded them an opportunity to advance their careers, receive greater media coverage, achieve meaningful play-based metrics, and be noticed by recruiters and sponsors.
Two of the plaintiffs, former Black student-athletes, say they were unaware upon signing their NLIs that their teams would be banned from postseason play. The third plaintiff, a current Black student-athlete, says she specifically chose to attend an HBCU over full scholarship offers from PWIs because of the benefits and advantages she would receive in playing for a Division I team without being the minority.
“[The third plaintiff] and the other Plaintiffs were not provided full information about the potential consequences of the NCAA’s discrimination against Black student-athletes at HBCUs,” the complaint states. “As a result, unbeknownst to them, they entered their NLI contracts with substantial disadvantages and effects.”
The full complaint can be read below.
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