A CASE OF FAIRNESS
By any measure, Howard University of Washington, D.C., had an impressive season. It had firepower: The Bison averaged 40.9 points a game and ranked first in rushing and second in total offense in Division I-AA. Howard also had a 9-1 record. But on Nov. 22 the division's selection committee decided that Howard was not impressive enough to be one of the eight at-large teams to join eight conference winners in the 16-team I-AA playoff field. The administration at Howard, a historically black school, was angered and frustrated and took the NCAA to court.
Howard accused the NCAA of antitrust and contract violations, as well as racial discrimination, and asked for $27 million in damages. It also sought an injunction to halt Saturday's first-round I-AA playoff games. Last Friday in Washington, U.S. District Court Judge John Garrett Penn refused to issue the injunction, saying that postponing the games at such a late date would disturb thousands of fans, but he acknowledged that the suit raised "substantial and severe questions" about the playoff selection process. We agree.
Howard's complaint focused on North Texas State, a 7-4 team that, according to the NCAA, was picked instead of the Bison by virtue of its tougher schedule. True, the Mean Green Eagles did play—and lose to—some toughies, including I-A Oklahoma (69-14) and TCU (19-10), while Howard was creaming four Division II opponents by a combined score of 206-17. Like Howard, North Texas State beat only one I-AA school with a winning record. But on the last week of the season, with both schools ranked 20th, the Eagles beat 3-8 Louisiana Tech by five points at home, while the Bison defeated 14th-ranked Delaware State by five points on the road. As Penn noted, "It does seem Howard would have ended up with a higher ranking."
After Penn's ruling Howard proposed that an extra round of playoff games be added immediately for it and three other teams that had been snubbed, and said it would go back to court to enjoin the second round of games if the NCAA turned down the proposal. Howard vowed to uncover a "pattern of discrimination" not only against itself, but also against other black schools.
The NCAA has defended its selection process, in which 16 committee members, chosen regionally, pick the at-large teams without any firm guidelines. It has also denied any racial prejudice, and, indeed, Howard may find proving that charge difficult. Of the 68 playoff teams chosen the last four years, 16 have been from the 15 black schools in Division I-AA. What seems a more likely reason for Howard's exclusion is the lack of clout among black schools, especially when the choices are not clear-cut, even though two blacks sit on the selection committee. Says coach Joe Purzycki of James Madison, who is white and who coached against Howard in the black Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference when he was at Delaware State, "I don't believe for a moment racism is behind this. I honestly believe it's a conference that doesn't have the political support it needs. It comes down to the subjective judgment of the people selecting. It's a capricious formula."
No matter how things work out, by challenging the system Howard has forced the NCAA to reexamine that formula and be more rigorous in its pursuit of fairness.
THE ENVELOPES, PLEASE
Our annual awards for the best, worst and weirdest:
?BEST GAME: Miami's 26-25 victory over Florida State (Oct. 3). It not only was a thriller, with the 'Canes coming back from a 19-3 deficit in the final 18 minutes, but it also profoundly affected the bowls and the polls. Coach Bobby Bowden's gutsy decision to go for two after the Seminoles' last-minute touchdown—and their failure to convert those points after—may have cost them the No. 1 ranking.