Howard University, which believed its football team was unjustly left out of the 16-team NCAA Division I-AA football tournament, will file suit today in U.S. District Court to prevent this weekend's scheduled first-round games from being played until the court decides whether the Bison should be included in the playoffs.

At a pep rally honoring the team and coaches yesterday at the university's Blackburn Center, President James Cheek said he has initiated the lawsuit because the school has become the latest victim in "a historic pattern of racial discrimination" by the NCAA.

Cheek said Howard hopes to obtain a temporary restraining order to prevent eight first-round games from being played around the country this weekend unless Howard is included in the field. He also said the lawsuit seeks to change the NCAA's future selection process to include more predominantly black schools in all of its tournaments in various sports.

"What we embarked upon today was not a skirmish," said Cheek, who has headed the university for more than 18 years. "I am declaring war on the NCAA. This is the inauguration of a struggle. One of the hallmarks of this institution is that it has fought and destroyed racism in every manner it has ever manifested itself . . . It would not be appropriate by our history or character, or would it be prudent in the circumstances we confront, if we were to willingly and gracefully accept the decision of the NCAA committee."

Howard finished the regular season at 9-1, a record second only to top-ranked Holy Cross, which declined to participate in the tournament due to academic reasons. Teams ranked second through 17th gained berths to the tournament, including six conference champions and the two highest-ranked independents who are given automatic bids. Howard was ranked 18th.

Dennis Poppe, head of the NCAA's men's competition committee, said he would not comment on the suit until he had read it. He did say he knew of no other similar suit in the NCAA's history.

Indiana State Athletic Director Beanie Cooper, head of the four-man committee that has the final decision on weekly I-AA football rankings and determines the tournament participants, said he believes Howard has no case.

"In my three years in this position, I never once had an inkling that anyone was voting on the issue of race," said Cooper. "The issue doesn't come up because we are all familiar with the makeup of these schools and don't need to discuss it."

Jackson State is the only predominantly black school invited to this year's tournament. That school's athletic director, Walter Reed, is the only black voting member of the I-AA football committee, and was the only one of the four to push for the Bison to be included in the playoff field.

Cooper said Howard must share a large part of the blame for its fate. He cited Howard's failure to file a formal letter saying it was in complete compliance with NCAA rules. All NCAA-member schools are required to submit the letter early in the season. Without the letter on file, a school cannot be ranked, thus Howard was excluded from the voting for five weeks. That hurt its chances of moving up in the poll.

He also said Howard played a weak schedule, with four of its 10 games against Division II or NAIA competition. And he said Howard should vent some of its anger at its own league, the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, for forfeiting its automatic bid for its champion by allowing members Bethune-Cookman and Florida A&M to play a game on Nov. 28. If a school cannot guarantee its conference champion could participate in the tournament, the conference forfeits the automatic bid that season.

"Those reasons are ludicrous," said Howard deputy general counsel Francis Smith. "Are you saying because we failed to fill in a form early in the year, you will treat us unfairly all season? As far as the schedule, a lot should simply depend on how well you beat the teams you play. And if the conference is normally worthy of an automatic bid, shouldn't the winner of the conference be worthy of an at-large bid?"

Smith said the lawsuit technically will focus on arguments of antitrust and breach of contract.

"The antitrust aspect constitutes unreasonable restraint of trade," he said. "Every team that plays in the tournament gets a share of the total monies taken in. We have also alleged we have a contract with the NCAA that performance should be awarded according to its established criteria, and a school with a 9-1 record should be able to participate."

Howard supporters were particularly incensed with Howard being left out of the playoffs while North Texas State received an invitation. The schools entered last weekend tied for No. 20 in the poll. Howard defeated then No. 14 Delaware State, 12-7, to win the MEAC title. North Texas State was a 10-5 winner over Louisiana Tech (3-8).

"Deep down inside, I feel the whole thing is racist," said Howard tailback Harvey Reed. "But I also think they didn't want us in the tournament and beating anyone."

Cheek said if the lawsuit is successful, Howard would be ready to play in a game Saturday, even though it did not practice at all this week.

"They don't have to practice," he said. "If they are permitted to play, Coach {Willie} Jeffries will have his team ready."

Jeffries said he could have all of his players, most of whom left today for Thanksgiving recess, "back within half-a-day," but he did admit the lawsuit will have more of a long-term effect.

"If it doesn't help Howard this year, it will help people down the road," he said. "I think the committees will have to be more critical in the ranking and selecting process. It will cut out some of the buddy-buddy system they have now."