Hyperbole, as some of my readers tell me, is off-putting. It obscures a possibly convincing argument and simply angers people. It may be for those reasons that the arguments of predominantly black colleges that the new standards for athletic eligibility are unfair to them has been lost in a din of invective totally out of proportion to the problem. Nevertheless, the black colleges have a point.
Meeting recently in San Diego, the NCAA raised the eligibility requirements for freshmen athletes. The association voted to require high school seniors to have a combined College Board (SAT) score of at least 700 to be eligible for varsity sports in the freshman year. The black colleges quickly yelled racism.
Dr. Jesse N. Stone Jr. of Southern University called the new rule "patently racist." Dr. Frederick Humphries of Tennessee State added that he had "never seen a greater setback" to the civil rights movement in the 30 years he has been in public life. He called for the ultimate weapon: the intervention of the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
You would think from the rhetoric that the NCAA had voted to reinstitute Jim Crow. It did not. Instead, we are talking about what appears to be a reasonable standard for freshman eligibility--an attempt by the NCAA to end what almost everyone concedes is the exploitation of young athletes.
There are an awful lot of freshmen playing ball when they should, on the basis of their SATs, be hitting the books. In a real sense, these young people--mostly men--are exploited by schools who want them for their athletic ability. They play them, but sometimes fail to educate them, and some of these young athletes leave school as ill-prepared for life as when they entered--sometimes even without the degree they ostensibly sought.
But using SATs is the wrong way to ensure that student athletes will not be exploited. The reason for that is the numbers themselves. While a combined score of 700 on the English and the math tests is a pretty low standard (1600 is the maximum score and 400 is the minimum), it is nevertheless a score that fewer than half of all black high school seniors attain. In comparison, more than 75 percent of all whites score 700 or better.
These figures, while shocking, are nothing new. It has long been known that blacks perform far worse on the tests than do whites. The correlation, though, is not race, but income group. The higher the income group, the higher the scores, and since whites in general have higher incomes, they have, as night follows day, higher scores.
Of course, there is something to be said for refusing to allow anyone with low SATs to play varsity ball in the freshman year. There is even something to be said for refusing to allow any freshman to play varsity ball. It's a year of stress and confusion: a new environment, new demands, and, for many, the first time they have ever lived away from home.
But it is clear that using the SATs or similar aptitude tests does discriminate against predominantly black colleges. If these colleges have any mission--and there are some who say that since desegregation they do not--it is to take the raw material of the poor and undereducated and turn them into college-educated men and women. This is their mission for athletes and nonathletes alike, a mission that precious few other schools would even attempt.
So while at a predominantly white school, a combined SAT of 700 might be the exception, at a black school it is not. And while at a predominantly white school, the student with a 700 score would be far behind his classmates, at a black school he not only may not be behind, but in fact may be a better student than most. In relative terms, he or she might be as good a student as any--as able to handle a freshman's courseload as anyone.
The operative word is "relative"--a word missing from the NCAA lexicon. Instead, the association has been arbitrary, treating all schools as if they were alike, failing to recognize the problems black schools face. The NCAA thinks it has been color blind. But when it comes to the problems of the black schools, it has merely been blind.