Seldom has there been an off-the-field issue that stirred as many passions as the recent passage of Proposal 48 by the NCAA.
In response to calls from educators to set minimum academic standards for varsity eligibility at Division I schools, the NCAA did just that. In the process, nearly every black-based school was alienated because black educators believe these standards are set by examinations that are culturally biased.
In short, Proposal 48 states that beginning in August 1986, to be eligible for varsity competition, an incoming freshman must have compiled a minimum of 700 points on his SATs or a 15 on his ACTs. Both of these exams are usually taken while a student is in high school.
The NCAA is to be commended for finally addressing the issue. It has been obvious for some time that, to borrow the phrase of Joe Paterno, the Penn State football coach, the predominantly white schools in Division I have been raping the black athlete.
But black college presidents and civil rights leaders are furious. They should be. All their member institutions have graduated excellent students who demonstrated an ability to learn but somehow couldn't initially fathom some SAT questions that had little relevance to the daily life of the average black youngster.
As Virginia Union University declares in its statement of purpose: "Entering qualifications of the students . . . are important, but they are secondary to the qualifications of the graduating students."
Was there some collusive racial rationale for Proposal 48, which passed overwhelmingly? No, probably not, but the strongly held perception in the black community is that there most certainly was, even though the proposal arose during the term of the NCAA's first black president, James Frank.
Will Proposal 48 adversely affect black colleges which want to retain their Division I status? Absolutely. At black colleges, the faculty is expected to counsel as well as teach. Missing is the "publish or perish" pressure found at large, predominantly white colleges. Support services for the marginal student at black schools are considered a normal adjunct to the teaching process.
Before passage of Proposal 48, was there sufficient input from the black community? Not really. The 37-man subcommittee of the American Council on Education, which recommended passage of the proposal, had only one black member, Leonard Spearman of Texas Southern University. Even so, consultation couldn't possibly end with black college presidents only.
Fewer than one-third of the roughly 1.1 million black college students attend black colleges and less than half of these graduate. Still, sports has great significance in the black community. Any rule threatening the one area where the black man clearly excels is not to be passed without broad-based general debate.
So what's to be done? For a start, each Division I school should address the academic standards issue squarely and draw up its own set of requirements. The NCAA should not be in the business of setting academic standards for individual schools. And SAT scores for minority students should not be a make-or-break criterion for admission.
But once admitted, all students should have to meet the same standards.
Predominantly white Division I schools should increase guidance services for minority students in general. Hispanic-Americans, American Indians and black Americans all have trouble adjusting to the cultural shock they experience at the typically large, predominantly white schools. Black student-athletes are no different.
What is needed more than anything else is a multidisciplinary review of the role of varsity athletics in our high schools and colleges. The furor created by Proposal 48 is but a symptom of the much larger issue of the place of sports in our society.