Blameless — Possibly — But Not Guilt-Free
Sports Forum Examines Test Scores, Role of Black Community in Meeting NCAA Eligibility Requirements
By Eric St. John
WASHINGTON — It was nearly unanimous. The National Collegiate Athletics Association is not responsible for the problems surrounding the question of academic eligibility for student athletes. But then again, the NCAA’s proffered solution — especially the standardized test requirement — does little to improve the situation. In fact, the requirement exacerbates the situation by denying opportunities to a segment of society that needs the benefits a college education affords.
That was the consensus of a panel of experts here for a national sports conference titled, “Sports in the New Millennium,” held on June 30-July 1. U.S. Labor Secretary Alexis Herman attended the NCAA forum, which was sponsored by Rainbow Sports, a division of the Rainbow/PUSH Wall Street Project’s Citizen Education Fund headed by Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr.
The discussion of the NCAA’s academic standards was moderated by Len Elmore, an attorney and sports analyst for ESPN who played college basketball for the University of Maryland before embarking on a 10-year professional sports career. Saying that there appears to be a “bleaching of college athletics,” he wanted to know — in light of the recent federal court decision striking down the testing part of the NCAA’s eligibility requirements (see Black Issues, April 1, 1999) — what the new standards will be, and will those standards be fair.
The other panelists were: Dan Boggan, a senior vice president for the NCAA; William Edelin, the parent of a high school student athlete; Marianna Freeman, the president of the Black Coaches Association (BCA) and coach of the Syracuse University women’s basketball team; Andrea Gardner, a Howard University athlete who was one of the students who filed the suit that resulted in a federal judge striking down the NCAA’s test-score requirements for athletic eligibility; Craig Jeffries, the football coach at Dunbar High School here in the District of Columbia; Don McPherson, an associate director of the National Consortium for Academics in Sports who played college football at Syracuse before turning pro; Raymond C. Pierce, the deputy assistant secretary at the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights; and Jay Rosner, the executive director of the Princeton Review Foundation.
Noting that “colleges did not educate these children before they got there,” McPherson opened the discussion by declaring, “It’s not about racism. Racism has done its job. It’s a matter of socio-economics…. The NCAA is not to blame for this.”
McPherson’s implication is that racism has denied quality primary and secondary education to students of color. And the way to reclaim that quality education is to demand high standards.
“High standards means equity in education,” OCR’s Pierce concurred.
Boggan added, “If you set standards early enough [in a child’s schooling], we know that [those standards] can be met.”
And the BCA’s Freeman said of her association, “We are not against standards by any means. If you have high expectations, you will get them.”
But while setting standards is important, the panelists stressed the need for the Black community to hold itself responsible for the achievement of those standards.
“We have to look at our priorities,” McPherson said.
And Freeman added that before the court-ordered desegregation of public schools following the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, “it was our community that taught our young people. Our schools [may not have had the advantages of White schools], but we placed a value on education. Post-Brown, we were still underfunded and still lacking books and materials, but the attitude was different.”
But the bulk of the discussion centered on testing and opportunity.
Noting the universally accepted cultural bias of the tests, Freeman said, “I see no place for them when we know that they are unfair. Why do we still use them?”
To which Rosner, of the Princeton Review Foundation, replied, “That piece of litigation [involving Gardner] should have been filed 10 years ago.”
A critic of standardized tests, Rosner noted that while the tests are supposed to be used to predict a student’s progress during freshman year, they are, in fact, “a very poor predictor of first-year college grades,” never mind a student’s graduation chances.
Rosner says standardized tests are used in higher education because “they are easy and cheap for the university. You only have three or four numbers [to read] and the kids are the ones paying for them.”
He then offered an interesting comparison between the relationship of standardized tests to higher education and the relationship of free throw shooting to the game of basketball. According to Rosner, admissions testing is like free throw shooting — part of the game, but not the whole game.
“If we treated free throws like admission tests, [Los Angeles Laker Shaquille O’Neal] wouldn’t be playing [professional] basketball.”
But Boggan divulged that there was — and still is — a lot of discussion within the NCAA about what the standardized test cut-off score should be if the court decide to allow standardized test scores to be part of the NCAA’s eligibility requirements.
And Pierce appeared to be coming to Boggan’s aid.
“The disparity alone is not a violation. It allows you to ask the next question, which is, ‘Is this test educationally justified?'” he said, before elaborating. “There has to be a manifest relationship between the test and stated goals of the test. And if there is such a relationship, is there a less discriminating alternative to achieving those goals?
“We ought to hold these tests to the same high standards that we hold the students,” Pierce added. “Children have been asked to master skills that they haven’t been taught, and that is against federal law.”
Freeman offered the NCAA an alternative to test scores. Citing Dr. Charlotte West, a research administrator, she proposes using a grade-point average of 2.25 within the core curriculum for all students coming out of any high school in the country. Students would have to meet general admission requirements — not special requirements for just athletes — and have graduated with that 2.25 GPA in the core curriculum in order to participate in freshman-year athletics. If a student cannot meet those requirements, the student cannot play during that first year of competition. However, if the student can obtain a degree in four years, the student would be allowed to play collegiate sports for a fourth year -presumably after graduation.
“This is the fairest proposal,” Freeman says. “It does not deny opportunity and it gives young people a chance to attend [college] and a chance to participate [in college athletics].”
Jeffries, the high school coach, suggested that if test scores continue to be used, perhaps higher education institutions should consider other variables in the admissions process — like attendance records.
Edelin, the panel’s designated parent, suggested the elimination of freshman eligibility.
“Being ineligible the first year is not such a bad idea,” he says, noting that most athletic scholarships cover five years. “That would give them time to acclimate and get used to being away from home, and they still would have four years of eligibility.”
But Gardner, the Howard student-athlete, disagreed, saying that being forced to watch your teammates compete while you cannot is a very painful experience.
Gardner could not comment on any aspects of the NCAA lawsuit because an appeal is pending. Asked if NCAA compliance with the judge’s ruling would be a satisfactory conclusion to the suit, her attorney, Adele Kimmel, replied, “But what about all the kids who were already affected by this? [The NCAA] will still have to deal with what they did in the past.”
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