Excerpted From: Timothy Davis, Assessing the Racial Implications of NCAA Academic Measures, 29 William and Mary Journal of Race, Gender, and Social Justice 1 (Fall, 2022) (345 Footnotes) (Full Document)


TimothyDavisThe National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), which consists of approximately 1,100 colleges and universities, is the body responsible for regulating major intercollegiate athletics in the United States. The NCAA's governance model subdivides its member institutions into three divisions, Divisions I, II, and III. This Article focuses on the academic standards for the NCAA's more than 350 Division I colleges and universities.

Division I provides the highest level of athletic competition and “full scholarships, cost-of-attendance stipends, degree completion programs and academic revenue distribution from the NCAA for schools that meet certain criteria.” Within Division I intercollegiate athletics, teams that participate in the football bowl subdivision (FBS football) and men's basketball are the primary revenue generators for NCAA-organized intercollegiate athletics. As explored below, Division I athletic programs' potential for revenue generation gives rise to a persistent tension with which colleges and universities have struggled for decades--the temptation to recruit athletes with high-level athletic prowess but questionable preparedness for the academic rigors of college.

This tension, among others, threatens the NCAA's conceptualization of intercollegiate sport premised on what the NCAA refers to as the collegiate model of intercollegiate athletics and its concomitant commitments. A cornerstone of the NCAA's collegiate model is the organization's articulated commitment to the academic well-being of college athletes. Consistent with this commitment, the NCAA's Division I Manual states “[i]ntercollegiate athletics programs shall be maintained as an important component of the educational program, and student-athletes shall be an integral part of the student body.”

To facilitate achieving the above-described goals, the NCAA promulgates academic standards. The NCAA's Division I Manual states, “Standards of the Association governing participation in intercollegiate athletics ... shall be designed to ensure proper emphasis on educational objectives and the opportunity for academic success, including graduation, of student-athletes who choose to participate at a member institution.” It is notable that in January 2022, NCAA member institutions adopted an amended Constitution that made major changes to the organization's governance model, by for example, delegating more regulatory control of intercollegiate athletics to the three divisions. Although the amended Constitution grants authority to the three divisions to develop academic eligibility standards, the amended Constitution emphasizes the NCAA's continued expressed commitment to the collegiate model and the educational primacy of intercollegiate athletics. The amended Constitution provides:

The Primacy of the Academic Experience: Intercollegiate student-athletes are matriculated, degree-seeking students in good standing with their institutions who choose voluntarily to participate in NCAA sports. It is the responsibility of each member institution to establish and maintain an environment in which a student-athlete's activities are conducted with the appropriate primary emphasis on the student-athlete's academic experience.

Thus, it is likely that whatever specific eligibility standards the NCAA's three divisions adopt in the future, they will do some within the framework of the above-stated principle. This Article assumes, as discussed infra, that any such changes to Division I academic eligibility rules will likely mirror key components of the existing academic eligibility regime while jettisoning others, such as the standardized test score of the current initial eligibility rules.

The Article assesses the impact of the NCAA's existing and proposed academic eligibility standards on Black athletes and historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and the possible effects of the elimination of the standardized test component of the NCAA's initial eligibility rules. The Introduction begins, however, with a brief historical overview of NCAA Division I initial eligibility standards, Propositions 48, 42, and 16, and the criticism of and lawsuits spurred by these standards. The discussion also explores the reasons that prompted the NCAA to legislate uniform academic eligibility requirements. Part II examines the outcome of lawsuits in which Black athletes alleged that Proposition 16 was racially discriminatory. It then discusses the lasting influence of these lawsuits.

Part I concludes with a discussion of a proposed change to Division I and II's initial eligibility standards--the elimination of standardized test scores as one of the metrics for determining whether matriculating college athletes can compete in intercollegiate athletics. The Article proposes that while eliminating the standardized test component is theoretically sound, it creates potential for marginalizing the academic interests of intercollegiate athletes, particularly Black athletes.

Part II examines other academic measures which constitute what are referred to as NCAA academic reforms. Through these measures, the NCAA seeks to increase the likelihood that college athletes will develop academically while participating in intercollegiate sports. These measures include the progress-toward-degree requirements and the NCAA's Academic Performance Program (APP), the constituent parts of which are the Graduation Success Rate (GSR) and the Academic Progress Rate (APR). As is true of the NCAA's initial eligibility standards, critics question whether these metrics assist institutions in achieving the NCAA's stated objectives as well as whether the APP prioritizes quantitative over qualitative outcomes. Part II addresses the impact of the APP on Black intercollegiate athletes and HBCUs and discusses Manassa v. NCAA, a lawsuit brought by current and former Black studentathletes at HBCUs who allege that the APP, particularly the APR component, is racially discriminatory due to its disproportionately negative impact on Black students and HBCUs.

[. . .]

The NCAA's Division I academic reform measures, which were initially promulgated in the 1980s, are the result of a convergence of factors, including the NCAA's responses to public pressure and litigation or potential litigation, the NCAA fashioning of a narrative of what constitutes academic success, and a desire to improve the educational and overall well-being of intercollegiate athletes. This mixture of often-conflicting motivations has undeniably reduced the likelihood of the occurrence today of scandals such as those that involved Dexter Manley and Kevin Ross. Yet, it is equally undeniable that this combination of motivations, along with persistent competitive pressures to field winning teams, have led the NCAA to enact academic measures knowing that their negative effects would be disproportionately borne by Black athletes and HBCUs.

Moreover, the NCAA's focus on quantitative outcomes obscures the true nature of athletes' educational experiences and deflects attention from the most pertinent question of all--whether institutions are abiding by their implicit promise to provide athletes with a meaningful educational experience and opportunity in exchange for athletic services. This question becomes particularly pertinent in FBS football and men's Division I basketball, with its disproportionate concentration of Black athletes, because of the substantial revenue generation potential of these sports.

The quality of the educational experience of FBS football and Division I men's basketball players, will likely become increasingly pertinent given the rapidly changing landscape of FBS football and the corresponding increase in economic pressures as illustrated by: (1) the University of Southern California and UCLA's impending membership in the Big Ten Athletic Conference, which may result in an estimated $1 billion per year going to the conference for football media rights and lead to further conference realignment, but likely harm the academic, mental, and physical well-being of athletes; (2) the uncertain future of the NCAA governance of college sports given its new constitution and conference realignment that may result in two super athletic conferences, and (3) uncertainty surrounding the continued viability of current NCAA Division I academic standards, which albeit flawed, provide some means of holding institutions accountable for their athletes' academic experiences. Unfortunately, these dynamics may further undermine institutions' willingness or ability to fulfill their implicit promise to provide athletes with a meaningful educational opportunity absent some combination of external means of accountability including: (1) state or federal legislation; (2) lawsuits challenging NCAA regulations; (3) changes to the economic model of Division I intercollegiate; (4) or a reimagining of what is currently Division I intercollegiate athletics.

If history is our guide, unless forced to do so, FBS institutions will likely resist efforts to enact internal changes that will interfere with efforts to generate increased revenue from FBS football and men's Division I basketball. The more likely outcome is that whatever academic measures are developed will prioritize maintaining eligibility over a high-quality academic experience for athletes. Consequently, the academic interests of Black intercollegiate athletes will continue to be marginalized.

Professor Davis is the John W. & Ruth H. Turnage Professor of Law at Wake Forest University School of Law.