PHILADELPHIA -- A federal appeals court Wednesday reversed a lower-court ruling and decided that the NCAA may use minimum standardized test scores in determining the eligibility of freshman athletes.
The lower court in March struck down the eligibility requirement, ruling that it was unfair to blacks. Four black athletes had sued the association for not allowing them to play or denying them scholarships because their test scores were not high enough.
In a 2-1 opinion, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said that since the NCAA did not directly receive federal funding, it was not subject to conform with Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that forbids discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin.
U.S. Circuit Judges Morton Greenberg and Walter Stapleton said it is the colleges, not the NCAA, that are responsible for disbursing and using federal funds. Therefore, they deemed it unnecessary to address arguments that the NCAA's eligibility requirements violate federal discrimination law.
"The ultimate decision as to which freshmen an institution will permit to participate in varsity intercollegiate athletics ... belongs to the member schools," the appeals court wrote. "The fact that the institutions make these decisions cognizant of NCAA sanctions does not mean that the NCAA controls them, because they have the option, albeit unpalatable, of risking sanctions or voluntarily withdrawing from the NCAA."
In a dissenting opinion, Judge Theodore McKee agreed with the plaintiffs' argument that the NCAA is a controlling entity of its member schools and therefore subject to Title VI requirements. He said that the eligibility requirements are also unfair to lower-income white athletes.
The NCAA created a separate entity, the National Youth Sports Program, to receive federal dollars that once were steered through the NCAA.
"We can't violate a law we're not subject to," NCAA general counsel Elsa Cole said. She said, however, that the association regularly reviews and modifies its eligibility rules in order to ensure fairness.
The NCAA standards were challenged by four black athletes in Philadelphia who contended they were denied athletic scholarships or sports eligibility because they did not score the minimum on the Scholastic Assessment Test or American College Test.
The standards, called Proposition 16, dictate minimum eligibility guidelines for freshmen in the association's 302 Division I schools. They include minimum scores of 820 on the SAT or 16 on the ACT, a core group of high school courses and a minimum grade-point average in that core.
Plaintiffs lawyer Andre Dennis said he was disappointed by the ruling and is considering an appeal. He said, however, the ruling was only based on a technicality and doesn't absolve the NCAA from any wrongdoing.
"The appeals court ruling does not disturb the lower court's ruling that Proposition 16 causes a disparate impact on African-American athletes," Dennis said.
The tests have long been a subject of debate in the academic and athletic worlds as to whether they are discriminatory. In March, U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Buckwalter struck down Proposition 16 after ruling that it was unfair to blacks.
Proposition 16 was a refinement of Proposition 48, which was enacted during the NCAA convention in 1983 at the bidding of reform-minded university presidents who wanted tougher academic standards.