CHICAGO–(BUSINESS WIRE)–Today, a group of Black student-athletes at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) filed a class action lawsuit against the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) alleging the organization’s Academic Performance Program (APP) is intentionally discriminatory toward and punishes Black student-athletes at HBCUs.
The complaint alleges that the NCAA knew when it adopted the APP, a program ostensibly designed to improve student-athlete academic performance, that it would in fact undermine HBCUs’ efforts to meet their mission to serve a historically underserved Black community, including Black student-athletes.
“HBCUs largely enroll low-income, first-generation Black students who have been historically disadvantaged, and the NCAA has access to plenty of academic data that indicates a program like the APP would have detrimental effects on Black student-athletes,” said Elizabeth Fegan, founding partner and managing member of FeganScott. “Instead of implementing a solution to fairly address student eligibility and graduation rates, the NCAA knowingly exacerbated racial disparities, even going so far as to worsen the inequity between HBCUs and their predominantly white counterparts.”
The APP is based on two metrics: Academic Progress Rate (APR) and Graduation Success Rate (GSR) of student-athletes. According to the complaint, each athlete who receives athletically related financial aid earns one point for continuing enrollment as a full-time student, and one point for remaining academically eligible pursuant to NCAA guidelines. The team’s total points are divided by points possible, and multiplied by 1,000, resulting in the APR. The NCAA maintains that a 930 APR is a “proxy” for eventual graduation success, representing a projected 50% GSR.
According to the 58-page complaint filed in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, the APP program utilizes an aggressive penalty scheme to sanction schools, with the possibility of ultimately restricting access to postseason play. These postseason bans include NCAA championships, national collegiate championships, and March Madness – major competitions that ultimately influence the trajectories and revenue opportunities for institutions and players alike.
“We experienced the harm caused by this unfair policy firsthand,” said Troyce Manassa, plaintiff and former guard for the Savannah State University men’s basketball team. “Not only did our practice times get reduced and limited because of the NCAA penalties; we were banned from playing in the postseason and missed out on huge milestones and accomplishments for the team and myself – a right we earned. Every college athlete wants the opportunity to play in the postseason tournament. The fact that these opportunities are taken away from Black student-athletes from HBCUs at these rates is unacceptable.”
J’TA Freeman, another plaintiff and member of Howard University’s women’s lacrosse team stated, “I chose to attend and play at Howard because I wanted to have a college experience that celebrated our history and prepared me for my future as a Black woman. I wanted to be a part of Division I team where people looked like me, and where I would not be the minority, stereotyped or isolated.”
Despite promises by the NCAA that this formula was “designed to improve graduation performance without having a disparate impact on ethnic minorities,” the complaint notes that the NCAA knew that the APP’s metrics continued to reinforce racial disparities, and that the GSRs for Black athletes were 20-30 percentage points lower than for white athletes.
“Frankly, the APP is just another failure in the NCAA’s history of discriminatory policies that disadvantage Black student-athletes,” Fegan said. “The exorbitant regulations, on top of lost revenue and banned postseason play, are the unfortunate consequences of a discriminatory system that was never designed to support or value HBCUs.”
The complaint maintains that the NCAA’s intentional decision to ignore reliable data demonstrates its failure to truly reform academic measurements and address racial disparities. The suit points to a study that compared HBCUs to similarly resourced non-HBCUs, which concluded race—rather than resources—was a predictor of APP penalties.
“Like other forms of systemic racism, these discriminatory policies are the insidious backbone to an antiquated program that must be completely re-envisioned,” said Je Yon Jung, senior attorney at May Lightfoot Law and co-counsel on the case. “These policies aren’t mere shortcomings – when more than 80 percent of postseason bans are meted out to HBCUs, and when an HBCU is 43 times more likely to be banned than a predominantly white institution, we cannot ignore these data are actively harming Black student-athletes.”
The suit aims to hold the NCAA accountable for the APP’s discriminatory policies, alleging that the postseason bans deny players opportunity to compete with their peers and receive media coverage, which affects their career trajectory and lucrative post-college benefits.
Further, the suit maintains that the bans interfere with the contracts formed between institutions and their athletes, arguing that players are prevented from receiving the full benefits of their contracts and the athletes and schools cannot access the greater publicity and revenue from highly publicized events.
“The time of reckoning for the NCAA is long overdue,” said Fegan. “The NCAA has engaged in decades of lip service and failed ‘reforms’ to the APP, all without acknowledging that the system is acting just as it was intended – to the detriment of Black student-athletes. For too long the NCAA has relied on its constitution and bylaws to act as a façade for equity, and it’s time that it actually carries out the ‘fair and level’ playing field that it so heartily espouses.”
The suit seeks compensation and punitive damages on behalf of all Black student-athletes who participated in Division I NCAA sports at HBCUs from 2010 to present and who were injured through the implementation of the APP program.
“When we consider the full weight of these policies and their targeted attack on the historical realities and injustices that HBCUs were intended to eradicate, it’s clear Black student-athletes’ education is secondary to the NCAA’s purse strings,” said LaRuby May, managing attorney at May Lightfoot Law. “This isn’t some college dream gone awry – this was a systematic dismantling of opportunity for these students, and the NCAA should be held accountable.”
FeganScott is a national class action law firm dedicated to helping victims of sexual abuse and sexual harassment. Beth Fegan, the firm’s founder and managing member, represents the group of survivors suing criminally convicted movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. The firm, championed by acclaimed veteran, class-action attorneys who have successfully recovered $1 billion for victims nationwide. FeganScott is committed to pursuing successful outcomes with integrity and excellence while holding the responsible parties accountable. Those interested in learning more should reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.
About May Lightfoot
May Lightfoot is the first female, Black-owned personal injury firm located in Southeast Washington D.C. LaRuby May, the firm’s founder and managing member, intentionally opened the firm as a solo practitioner east of the Anacostia River in Southeast D.C. in 2017 to serve the surrounding Black community. Since then, it has grown to be comprised of seven attorneys—all individuals of color and/or women. Je Yon Jung, senior attorney at May Lightfoot, has over 23 years of civil rights experience and leads the firm’s police misconduct, civil rights, and mass torts practice. The firms’ lawyers and practice areas place an emphasis and focus on injustices and injuries against our communities of color.
Case No. 1:20-cv-3172.