Trial Lawyers for Public Justice

page header

TLPJ Sues NCAA for Race Discrimination over Freshman Eligibility Rules

Suit Challenges Minimum Test Score Requirement as Discriminatory Against African-Americans

For Immediate Release: Wednesday, January 8, 1997
For More Information Contact: Theresa Henige, TLPJ, 202-797-8600; Andre' Dennis, 215-564-8034; David Schoen, 212-665-4817

Trial Lawyers for Public Justice (TLPJ) filed a national race discrimination class action against the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) January 8, charging that the NCAA's freshman eligibility rules discriminate against African-American student-athletes. The NCAA, which governs intercollegiate athletics, requires all potential student-athletes at major schools to achieve a minimum score on the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) or the American College Test (ACT) -- regardless of their academic records or scholastic achievements. The lawsuit charges that the requirement violates Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its implementing regulations, which prohibit race discrimination by educational institutions receiving federal funds.

"The NCAA's minimum test score requirement has discriminated against hundreds, if not thousands, of African-American student-athletes," said TLPJ co-lead counsel Andre' Dennis, of Philadelphia's Stradley, Ronon, Stevens & Young, LLP. "The goal of this lawsuit is to stop this discrimination."

The class action lawsuit, Cureton v. NCAA, was filed in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia on behalf of Tai Kwan Cureton and Leatrice Shaw, who graduated 27th and 5th, respectively, in a class of 305 from Philadelphia's Simon Gratz High School last June. Cureton and Shaw were originally recruited for track by numerous Division I schools. Despite their academic success, however, the recruiting abruptly changed -- and they were barred from competing as freshmen at Division I schools -- when they did not achieve the minimum SAT score. The lawsuit seeks an injunction prohibiting the NCAA from enforcing the minimum test score requirement and allowing all affected student-athletes to regain their lost year of athletic eligibility.

"The NCAA's use of a fixed cut-off score on the SAT or ACT is completely unjustified," said TLPJ co-lead counsel David Schoen, who has his own practice in New York City. "Colleges do not even use fixed cut-off scores to determine admissions. The NCAA's reliance on this one-size-fits-all cut-off score arbitrarily denies athletic opportunities for African-American students."

The NCAA first proposed adopting a fixed cut-off score requirement in the early 1980s. In 1983, the Educational Testing Service (ETS), which designed the SAT, criticized the NCAA's then-proposed use of a fixed cut-off score. ETS warned the NCAA that its use of a fixed cut-off score would have a disproportionate impact on African-American student-athletes and might undermine the overall effectiveness of the effort to raise standards for athletes. Despite ETS's warnings, the NCAA adopted rules that included a minimum test score requirement. These original rules, implemented in 1986, are known as "Proposition 48."

The NCAA later commissioned studies that proved ETS's warnings to be accurate. The NCAA's reports show that 47 percent of the African-American student-athletes who entered college prior to the implementation of Proposition 48 and graduated from college would have been deemed ineligible to compete and receive scholarships during their freshman year because of the minimum test score requirement. Only 8 percent of the graduating white athletes from that same freshman class would have been deemed ineligible based on their test scores.

The current freshman eligibility rules, which went into effect on August 1, 1996, are known as "Proposition 16." Proposition 16 uses even higher cut-off scores and will result in even greater discrimination against African-American student-athletes. The use of both Proposition 48 and Proposition 16 has been opposed for years by civil rights groups and public interest groups.

In 1994, The McIntosh Commission on Fair Play in Student-Athlete Admissions, a panel of independent scholars formed in 1985 to reanalyze the NCAA's research data, released a report strongly criticizing Proposition 48 and Proposition 16. The McIntosh Commission report found that the rules discriminate against minorities and students with lower socio-economic backgrounds, unjustifiably interfere with the higher education of thousands of student-athletes, and exclude many likely college graduates from competing in college sports as freshmen.

The National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest), a nonprofit organization dedicated to the fair use of standardized tests, has also attacked the inequities in both Proposition 48 and Proposition 16, particularly the use of the cut-off score. FairTest has repeatedly warned the NCAA that its rules are discriminatory and even attempted change through the NCAA's own legislative process, but to no avail.

"The NCAA's goal of ensuring academic integrity in college sports is admirable, but that desirable end doesn't justify the means," said TLPJ staff attorney Adele Kimmel, co-counsel in the case. "The minimum test score requirement violates federal civil rights law."

Under Title VI and its implementing regulations, the courts apply a three-part test to determine legality. First, the plaintiff must show that the challenged requirement has a racially disproportionate impact. Second, if such a showing is made, the defendant must prove that the requirement is dictated by educational necessity. Third, if the defendant meets its burden, the plaintiff can still prevail by showing that another, equally effective alternative requirement would have less of a racial impact. In Cureton v. NCAA, TLPJ asserts that the NCAA's requirement is unjustifiable and that numerous alternative approaches would be superior and non-discriminatory.

Explaining why he chose to file suit, named plaintiff Cureton said, "The NCAA's reliance on the SAT score is wrong and hurting hundreds, if not thousands, of African-American student-athletes. I believe this suit will make a difference and hope others will join me in challenging the NCAA's discriminatory rule."

TLPJ has become nationally known for, among other things, successfully representing women student-athletes in numerous Title IX suits, including the Title IX lawsuit against Brown University.

In addition to Dennis, Schoen, and Kimmel, TLPJ's legal team in Cureton v. NCAA includes J. Richard Cohen, Legal Director of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

"TLPJ sues NCAA for race discrimination over freshman eligibility rules." Trial Lawyers for Public Justice. 8 Jan 1997.