Does Anti-Bias Law Apply?

NCAA Wants Supreme Court Shield From Bias Lawsuits

By Richard Carelli
The Associated Press

WASHINGTON, Jan. 20, 1999 – The NCAA, accused of discriminating against female athletes in the way it enforces eligibility rules, asked the Supreme Court today to shield it from lawsuits based on a federal law banning sexual bias in educational programs receiving federal financial aid.

"It is not enough just to trace the money," argued the organization's lawyer, John G. Roberts Jr.

A focal point of the three-year legal battle is whether the powerful NCAA can be considered an indirect recipient of federal aid because of the dues it collects from its 1,200 member schools - virtually all of whom are federally subsidized.

If so, it could be subject to the anti-bias law known as Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.

If Title IX applies to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the organization will have to defend itself against Renee Smith's accusations that she illegally was declared ineligible years ago for intercollegiate volleyball.

Pursuing Complaint

"I want to establish a precedent, so other intercollegiate athletes don't have to start at zero," Smith said outside the court building.

Her lawyer, Carter Phillips, asked the justices to send the case back to a lower court and allow Smith to pursue her discrimination complaint.

Arguing that the NCAA should be considered an indirect recipient of federal aid and therefore covered by the federal law, Phillips said, "You can't stop at the federal funds recipient" such as a university. "You have to go beyond that."

Roberts argued that the NCAA is not an aid recipient under the law, and that athletes should take up discrimination complaints with the individual schools.

Following the Rules?

"How do you pin this on the university?" Justice Antonin Scalia asked. An individual school, after all, is just following the NCAA rules, he said.

"It hasn't done anything except deny a waiver under circumstances that are perfectly reasonable," Scalia said.

The justices are expected to make a decision by late June.

Smith has some firepower on her side. The Clinton administration is urging the court to rule for her and keep her 1996 lawsuit alive.

Smith, who lives in Wintersville, Ohio, played volleyball for St. Bonaventure University in the 1991-92 and 1992-93 seasons. She chose not to participate the following season, and graduated in less than three years.

Smith later pursued a graduate degree at Hofstra University and a law degree at the University of Pittsburgh. At each, her attempts to play two more seasons of volleyball were thwarted by an NCAA rule that bars graduate students from competing in intercollegiate athletics at a school other than the one from which they earned their undergraduate degree.

Smith's lawsuit says the NCAA grants male student-athletes a disproportionate number of waivers from that eligibility rule. But the NCAA, noting that many more men apply for such waivers, says a higher percentage of female applicants are granted them.

A federal judge threw out Smith's lawsuit, but the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated her Title IX claim last year. "The NCAA is not merely an incidental beneficiary of federal funds," the appeals court ruled.

Smith is now a lawyer, licensed to practice in California and about to take the Ohio bar examination in February. She works for her father's mining and industrial supply company, and last fall was an assistant volleyball coach at Weir High School in Weirton, West Virginia.

The case is NCAA vs. Smith, 98-84.

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