Black Athletes, Race and the Rise of NCAA Eligibility Requirements

Imagine this scenario, a scientist develops a gas that kills mosquitoes but can cause some people to go blind.  Let’s say, the gas only blinds white people with blonde hair and blue eyes.  A few people with white people brown or black hair might get sick but they don’t go blind.  Some with brown or green eyes may get a headache, but they don’t lose their vision.  Blacks, Asians and Latinos are unaffected by the gas.  At the request of the Mayors, the scientist decides to release the gas in New York, Boston and Philadelphia.  All of the mosquitoes are killed but over 200,000 white people with blonde hair and blue eyes lose their ability to see.

Did the scientist discriminate against people with white blonde hair and blue eyes?  Furthermore, suppose the scientist says, “I’m not targeting any specific group, I’m just killing mosquitoes.”  Investigators would ask, “Did you know the gas would cause people with blonde hair and blue eyes to go blind?”  The scientist answers, “yes, but I didn’t target them specifically… I just released the gas to kill mosquitoes.”  How would you view the scientist? Is he a racist? Would it matter that he says he didn’t “target” people with blonde hair and blue eyes?  Whatever his intentions, white people with blonde hair and blue eyes were disproportionately harmed by the intervention.

duke-team-1966-67Duke Men’s Basketball Team, 1966-67

From 1905 through the early 1970’s, major NCAA college basketball and football programs fielded teams that were predominantly white.  In the south, major college athletics was exclusively the preserve of white males for these seven decades.  During this entire 70 year period, there were no substantial “academic reforms” initiated by the NCAA.   In 1959, the NCAA determined that 12 credits per semester defined normal progress.  In 1965, a 1.6 minimum GPA was established for continuing eligibility.  In 1973, the 1.6 rule was replaced with a simpler requirement of a 2.0 high school GPA for initial eligibility, and restoring institutional authority over determining normal progress.

Please note, when the players were overwhelmingly white, academic standards were either non-existent or incredibly low.

1966AlabamaCrimsonTideAlabama Crimson Tide Football Team, 1966

Throughout the 1970’s major college revenue sports underwent a “tanning”  process as Blacks became a majority of the football and basketball athletes.  By the the early 1980’s, Blacks represented the lion’s share of scholarship athletes in revenue sports.  NCAA Eligibility requirements soon emerged as a means of excluding many Black student-athletes from competing at the NCAA Division 1 level.  Like the scientist in the earlier hypothetical, the NCAA says it did not “intend” to disproportionately impact Blacks.  It just happened.

Condride HallowayCondredge Holloway, Tennessee Volunteers, 1st Black QB (1972) in the SEC

With abandonment of rigid Apartheid-like segregation in the South, the 1970s witnessed a rapid influx of Black student-athletes in major college football and basketball. College coaches across the country were, finally, able to recruit the best student-athletes. This resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of Black student-athletes in major college programs. In about 10 years, Blacks went from being formally excluded to a majority of the players.  The rapid increase in Black student-athlete representation was accompanied by calls for academic reform.  Some felt the reforms were intended to halt and even reverse the gains made by Black athletes.

Charlie ScottCharlie Scott, the first Black scholarship athlete at UNC

Over the years,  a few outspoken critics forcefully asserted that academic reforms were racially motivated. In January of 1989, Temple Coach John Chaney declared, “The NCAA is a racist organization of the highest order… On this day, it instituted a new punishment on black kids who have already been punished because they are poor. Any time the NCAA, which is 90 percent white, considers the youngsters in Division I basketball and football, it discriminates, because 89 percent of the kids are black… I wonder what message they are sending. It’s another hardship for black kids made by white folk.”  Coach Chaney wasn’t alone in voicing displeasure.

Also in January of 1989, Georgetown Coach John Thompson walked off the in protest before the start of a game against Boston College. At the time Thompson said, “I’ve done this because, out of frustration, you’re limited in your options of what you can do in response to something I felt was very wrong…. This is my way of bringing attention to a rule a lot of people were not aware of – one which will affect a great many individuals. I did it to bring attention to the issue in hopes of getting [NCAA members] to take another look at what they’ve done, and if they feel it unjust, change the rule.”

John ThompsonJohn Thompson, Jr., Former Georgetown Head Coach

The NCAA position regarding academic reforms has been consistent throughout the years. The NCAA officials said the legislation gave no consideration to racial implications, although it has been estimated that approximately 90 percent of the 600 students a year who will be affected are black.  Paradoxically, the NCAA is saying we know the reforms disproportionately impact Blacks but we gave no consideration to race.

Beginning in the early 1980s, the NCAA implemented significant changes in the freshman eligibility rules. The NCAA developed and implemented Proposition 48 at its’ 1983 convention. The racially disparate impact of the reform is beyond dispute. The rule change had a harsh impact on Blacks, especially those from low-income households.  Formulated in 1983 and fully implemented in 1986, Prop 48 rule stipulated, entering freshmen would be eligible for scholarships only if they had achieved a grade point average of at least 2.0 in 11 core college preparatory courses and, when it came to the two standard college entrance examinations, attained a minimum score of 700 on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) or 15 on the American College Testing Program’s exam.

Given the historical context of Apartheid-like segregation and the systematic exclusion of Blacks, many viewed the NCAA academic reforms as attempt to assuage the fears of racist University administrators and their supporters. These critics were especially concerned about the lack of African-American participation on the committee that developed the original Proposition 48 document. A reform measure that disproportionately impacted Blacks was developed, designed and implemented by an all-white committee.  It’s easy to understand why some feel that academic reforms are intended limited and even reduce the presence of Black student-athletes while simultaneously preserving the spirit and perception of racial inclusion.

Critics allege that Prop 48 and the subsequent reforms represent an attempt to devise a regulatory structure that would allow for some minority participation but facilitate continuation of the long standing tradition of predominantly white participation.

The racially disparate impact of the reforms are obvious. In one study, Richard Lapchick of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society, found that if Prop 48 had been in place in 1981, 69% of all males entering college on athletic scholarships would have been ineligible. More than two-thirds of the freshman male Black student-athletes would have been denied an opportunity to go to college on an athletic scholarship. Moreover, 54% of those student-athletes eventually graduated. That graduation rate was comparable to the graduation rate for all students which stood at 57%.

C48F2298Richard Lapchick, Center or the Study of Sport in Society

The loophole in the 1983 rule allowed “partial qualifiers,” students with a 2.0 high school GPA who didn’t make the requisite standardized test score, to attend college on athletic scholarships for one year. Although partial qualifiers lost one year of athletic eligibility and were not permitted to compete in their first year, they had a chance to gain eligibility by posting a 2.0 GPA during that year.

In 1990, the NCAA adopted Proposition 42, under which student-athletes failing to score at least 700 on the SAT or an equivalent score on the ACT and a 2.0 GPA were ineligible for any type of financial aid. Partial qualifiers were eligible for need-based, non-athletic financial aid.  Prop 42 was written and sponsored by the Southeastern Conference (SEC).  The SEC was the last major conference to allow Black participation.  The SEC voted to phase it in unilaterally even if the NCAA did not adopt the measure.

In 1995, the NCAA’s eligibility requirements became more stringent. The NCAA increased the number of required course from 11 to 13 and voted to implement a sliding scale in addition to retaining the SAT and ACT as a key component of the eligibility standards. Beginning August 1996, students with a 2.0 in 13 core course had to score at least 900 on the SAT. For each ten-point drop in SAT scores, student-athletes had to have a corresponding .025 increase in grade point average. Thus a student with a 2.5 GPA could score 700 and still be eligible.

In 2003, the NCAA enacted tougher standards for initial eligibility beginning with students first enrolling in the fall of 2008. The number of required core course went from 13 to 14.

In 2012, the NCAA approved another series of increasingly tougher reforms. Beginning is 2016, student-athletes would have to complete 16 core courses. Of those 16 core courses, 10 would have to be completed before the beginning of the senior year and grades from those core courses are “locked in” for computing a GPA once the senior year begins. In other words, there are no more emergency summer sessions in the senior year to rectify failing grades.

Mark EmmertNCAA President Mark Emmert

Additionally, a student-athlete must have a minimum GPA of 2.3 in those 16 core courses (up from 2.0) with an accompanying sliding scale SAT/ACT score. As originally conceived, a student-athlete with a 2.3 GPA would have to score 1080 on the SAT or an equivalent score on the ACT. Currently, a student-athlete with a 2.3 GPA has to score 900 on the SAT. Beginning in 2016, a student-athlete with a minimum GPA of 2.0 is considered an “academic redshirt.” He or she may practice with but not compete for his/her team for the first semester. Under present rules, a student-athlete with a 2.0 GPA could score a 1010 and be eligible for a scholarship and participation. Additionally, beginning this year, junior college transfers will be required to have a 2.5 GPA (up from 2.0) in their transferable credits.

At a subsequent meeting, the NCAA Division I Board of Directors maintained its support for higher grades and a core course progression. However, the NCAA adopted legislation that would keep for the foreseeable future the test score/grade-point average sliding scale at the current level for student-athlete access to financial aid, practice and competition in the first year.

The Board acknowledged that requiring prospects to meet a more stringent sliding scale starting in 2016 would negatively impacted low-income minority youth.  They publicly noted that there would have been a significant decrease in the number of eligible student-athletes from America’s inner cities.  The 1080 SAT requirement with a 2.3 GPA could have effectively eliminated tens of thousands of Black student-athletes.  For example 39 of Philadelphia’s 58 (67.2%) public High Schools have average SAT scores below 800.  The likelihood of student-athletes from these types of schools scoring 1080 or higher is virtually nil.

In effect too much of the football and basketball athletic talent pool would be off limits.  Those consequences led the Board to its decision to retain the current sliding scale standard.

For nearly seventy years, from 1905 -1970, the NCAA consisted of conferences that explicitly practiced racial exclusion.  “Whites only” was the guiding feature of the Atlantic Coast Conference, Southeastern Conference and the old Southwestern Conference. During this era there was almost no attention paid to academics by the NCAA.  By the early 1980’s Blacks became a majority of football and basketball student-athletes.  Since then, the NCAA has implemented five successive “academic reforms.”  Each reform package has been more restrictive than prior measures.  The scientists remain busy as ever in the lab.  Be on the lookout for blonde haired, blue eyed people walking into walls.

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