HBCU College Athletes Challenge the NCAA’s Academic Performance Program

HBCU College Athletes Challenge the NCAA’s Academic Performance Program

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (“NCAA”) imposes academic standards to ensure that student-athletes are more than just athletes.[1] The Academic Performance Program (“APP”) requires college teams to meet specific academic benchmarks based on team members’ grades, eligibility, and whether they are graduating or remaining in school.[2] Programs must meet these standards regardless of their school’s mission or resources.[3] If a team’s members do not meet the academic standards, the NCAA imposes penalties, including banning the team from postseason competition.[4] To measure a team’s academic success, the NCAA calculates an Academic Progress Rate (“APR”).[5] According to the NCAA, the APR “holds institutions accountable for the academic progress of their student-athletes.”[6] APR is calculated by providing one point to each student-athlete receiving athletically related financial aid for staying in school and one point for being academically eligible.[7] Then, “a team’s total points are divided by points possible and then multiplied by 1,000 to equal the team’s APP.”[8] Additionally, a team’s rolling four-year APR is used “to determine accountability.”[9] To compete in championships, teams must earn a four-year average APR of 930.[10]

In December 2020, two former Black student-athletes and one current Black student-athlete from historically Black colleges and universities (“HBCUs”) filed a lawsuit against the NCAA alleging that the NCAA’s Academic Performance Program (“APP”) is discriminatory.[11] One of the plaintiffs, Troyce Manassa, played basketball at Savannah State University (“SSU”), a historically black university in Georgia.[12] During his senior year, his team was banned from postseason play by the NCAA’s APP rules.[13] Another plaintiff, Austin Dasent, also played basketball for SSU.[14] During his junior year and first year at SSU, his team was also banned from postseason play by the NCAA’s APP rules.[15] Neither Manassa nor Dasent were aware of SSU’s NCAA penalties, “including ban from postseason play, until after [they] committed to and arrived at SSU.”[16] Lastly, plaintiff J’Ta Freeman is playing women’s lacrosse at Howard University, another historically black university.[17] Her team is at risk of being banned from postseason play by the NCAA’s current APP rules.[18] Freeman was unaware that the NCAA has banned the Howard University women’s lacrosse from postseason play in the past.[19] Manassa, Dasent, and Freeman want to represent “a national class of all Black student-athletes who participated in Division I HBCU athletics and whose teams were subjected to a postseason access ban from the 2010-2011 school year through the date of class certification.”[20] Additionally, Freeman wants to represent a District of Columbia subclass.[21]

The plaintiffs argue that the APP’s design and implementation perpetuate discrimination against Black student-athletes at HBCUs because HBCUs focus on mostly enrolling low-income, first-generation, and historically disadvantaged Black students.[22] The lawsuit highlights that HBCU teams are forty-three times more likely to receive a postseason competition ban than a team from a predominately white institute.[23] The suit also adds that HBCUs make up only 6.5 percent of NCAA Division I schools, but seventy-two percent of teams banned from postseason competition since 2010 are from HBCUs.[24] Additionally, the complaint cites a 2018 study that evaluated if race or low resources lead to greater APP penalties.[25] The study compared HBCUs to similarly resourced non-HBCUs. The study concluded that the HBCUs were six to eight times more likely to receive APP penalties than similarly resourced, non-HBCUs.[26]

On February 8, 2021, the NCAA argued that the Manassa and Dasent’s claims are barred by Georgia’s statute of limitations.[27] The plaintiffs argue that the NCAA purposefully hid its policy’s bias and time should start from when the players discovered it.[28] The NCAA also argued that the lawsuit does not meet the pleading requirements. Specifically, the NCAA claimed that the lawsuit “doesn’t adequately claim that the [APP] is discriminatory or that Black players have been harmed by the bans.”[29] The plaintiffs argue that the defendant’s arguments rely on a misunderstanding of the applicable legal standard.[30] They argue that they alleged a plausible and redressable injury-in-fact: discriminatory treatment.[31] Additionally, they argue that being banned from postseason play affects their post-college recruitment options and keeps them from receiving other benefits promised in their commitment contracts.[32] They also reiterated the data in their complaint backing the alleged racial discriminatory treatment.[33] Furthermore, the complaint alleges that the NCAA has historically imposed academic requirements that disproportionately affect Black athletes.[34] To prevent further discrimination, the plaintiffs are seeking an injunction.[35] They are also seeking compensation and punitive damages on behalf of the proposed class injured by the APP standards.[36]

[1] See Tom Goldman, Challenging The NCAA: HBCUS Say No More Discrimination In Academic Rules, NPR (Dec. 10, 2020), https://www.npr.org/2020/12/10/944982415/challenging-the-ncaa-hbcus-say-no-more-discrimination-in-academic-rules.

[2] See id.

[3] See Derrick Z. Jackson, Lawsuit by HBCU Athletes Fight What It Calls NCAA’s Systemic Racism, The Undefeated (Jan. 15, 2021), https://theundefeated.com/features/lawsuit-by-hbcu-athletes-fights-what-it-calls-ncaas-systemic-racism/.

[4] See Laura Berg, Black Athlete Say NCAA Academic Rules Are Racially Biased, Law360 (Dec. 10, 2020), https://www.law360.com/articles/1336777/black-athletes-say-ncaa-academic-rules-are-racially-biased/.

[5] See Academic Progress Rater Explained, NCAA, https://www.ncaa.org/about/resources/research/academic-progress-rate-explained.

[6] Id.

[7] See id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] See id.

[11] Complaint at 49, Manassa et al. v. National Collegiate Athletic Association et al., No. 1:20-cv-3172 (S.D. Ind. Dec. 10, 2020).

[12] See Berg, supra note 4.

[13] See id.

[14] See Complaint, supra note 11, at 6.

[15] See id. at 7.

[16] Id. at 6-7.

[17] See Berg, supra note 4.

[18] See id.

[19] See Complaint, supra note 11, at 9.

[20] See Berg, supra note 4.

[21] See Complaint, supra note 11, at 44.

[22] See Erin Shaak, ‘Intentional Discrimination’: Class Action Claims NCAA’s Academic Requirements Disproportionately Penalize Black Athletes, ClassAction.org (Dec. 11, 2020), https://www.classaction.org/news/intentional-discrimination-class-action-claims-ncaas-academic-requirements-disproportionately-penalize-black-athletes.

[23] See id.

[24] See id.

[25] See Complaint, supra note 11, at 37.

[26] See id. at 38. For access to the 2018 study, see Ryan J.R. Westman, Investigating Equity: An Evaluation of the Relationship of the NCAA’s APR Metric on Similarly Resourced Historically Black and Predominately White the NCAA Division-I Colleges and Universities (Aug 23, 2018) Seton Hall University Dissertations and Theses, https://scholarship.shu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3664&context=dissertations.

[27] Rachel Scharf, Black Athletes Say NCAA Must Face Academic Rule Bias Suit, Law360 (Mar. 18, 2021), https://www.law360.com/sports-and-betting/articles/1366227/black-athletes-say-ncaa-must-face-academic-rule-bias-suit?copied=1.

[28] See id.

[29] See id.

[30] See id.

[31] See id.

[32] See id.

[33] See id.

[34] See id.

[35] See Berg, supra note 4.

[36] See Student Athletes at Black Colleges and Universities Sue NCAA Claiming “Intentional Discrimination” in Academic Performance Program According to FeganScott Law Firm, Bus. Wire (Dec. 10, 2020), https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20201210006075/en/.

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