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Landmark ruling for colleges

Judge: NCAA cannot use SAT to determine eligibility

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Posted: Tuesday March 09, 1999 11:35 AM

  John Thompson: "I'm glad the judge stood up and addressed what a lot of us have known to be true." Doug Pensinger/Allsport

PHILADELPHIA (AP) -- The NCAA said its 302 Division I schools are on their own now in determining which freshmen are academically eligible to play college sports because a federal judge has rejected use of a minimum test score to determine eligibility.

U.S. District Judge Ronald L. Buckwalter ruled that the policy known as Proposition 16 -- requiring freshmen athletes to have a minimum score of 820 on the Scholastic Assessment Test no matter how high their high school grades were -- is effectively racial discrimination because blacks were more likely than whites to miss that mark.

But the decision hasn't made all critics of the rule happy.

"I feel more upset than anything. Being right doesn't mean anything to me," said former Georgetown University basketball coach John Thompson, a longtime critic of Proposition 16 and similar rules that preceded it.

"What do you do for the kids who have been deprived, who needed athletics to be able to get out of their situations?" said Thompson. "Changes will obviously come about, but how do you go back and change the kids this hurt? All you can say is 'Sorry,' and there's something wrong, very wrong with that."

Four black student-athletes who were denied eligibility to take part in college sports challenged the rule.

Buckwalter also said in Monday's ruling that the NCAA could meet its goal of higher graduation rates by an eligibility system that lets more blacks through -- such as a system that uses SAT scores together with grade-point averages in core subjects.

"The court was focusing on the lack of a rational basis for selecting that particular score," said Adele P. Kimmel, a staff lawyer with Trail Lawyers for Public Justice, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group. "Our lawsuit never said they couldn't consider SAT scores at all," she said.

Ms. Kimmel said the NCAA staff had recommended a "sliding scale," in which test scores and grade-point averages in core academic courses would be given equal weight. But, she said, the NCAA surveyed its member schools last year, and a majority of them decided to reject that idea and keep the Proposition 16 rule.

Plaintiffs' lawyers also said the decision will be good for both blacks and whites.

"Low-income white student-athletes will also benefit because the rule has had a disparate impact on them as well," said the plaintiffs' lead counsel, Andre Dennis of the Philadelphia firm of Stradley, Ronon, Stevens & Young.

The NCAA decried the ruling and said it might seek suspension of the decision "because at this point there is no rule at all" -- which she called a disservice to student-athletes.

"Each school will have to decide itself whether a student can play the first year," NCAA General Counsel Elsa Kircher Cole said. "It could lead to inconsistencies between standards at the schools and leaves the possibility of student athletes being exploited."

Ms. Cole also noted that the court did not bar use of SAT scores completely. "While the court struck down the rule setting forth initial eligibility, it left the door open for the NCAA to adopt a rule in the future" using SAT scores as long as there was enough of a correlation between scores and the graduation rate, she said.

Thompson, who resigned from Georgetown for personal reasons in January in his 27th season at the university, said he had mixed emotions over the ruling.

"I'm glad the judge stood up and addressed what a lot of us know to be true," said Thompson, who boycotted two games in 1989 over a rule that preceded Proposition 16.

"We should at least have individual evaluation mean more at individual institutions," he said. "I never said you shouldn't use SAT scores, but I did say you shouldn't misuse SAT scores, and all along we have as we generated statistics trying to fool the world."

In addition to ruling on test scores, the judge decided that the plaintiffs could sue the NCAA under the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964. The U.S. Supreme Court had declined to rule on that question last month, but Buckwalter noted that the plaintiffs' lawyers in this case had presented a lot of information not given to the Supreme Court.

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