Howard University filed suit against the NCAA yesterday and a federal judge said he will hold a hearing Friday to determine the merits of the university's request for a temporary restraining order that would either place the Bison in the NCAA Division I-AA football playoffs or prevent the tournament from beginning Saturday.

Howard, which believes its team was unfairly left out of the 16-team playoffs, also seeks $27 million in punitive and compensatory damages, alleging the NCAA violated antitrust laws and breached its contract.

The case was assigned to U.S. District Judge John Garrett Penn.

After a late-afternoon meeting with Penn yesterday, at which time Penn set an expedited hearing for 10:30 a.m. Friday, NCAA attorney Mike Scott and Howard attorney Francis Smith declined comment.

In U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, a request for a temporary restraining order -- which, if granted, would remain in effect until a hearing on a permanent injunction -- is judged on four factors: the likelihood of success; the likelihood the party seeking the stay will be irreparably harmed without it; the prospect for harm to others if the stay is granted, and the public interest in granting the stay.

Smith argued that the irreparable harm caused Howard by being excluded from the tournament overrides the question of whether Howard will be successful in the jury trial it has requested.

On Tuesday, Howard President James Cheek said the suit would prove that the university has become the latest victim in "a historic pattern of racial discrimination" by the NCAA. Although Howard's suit doesn't charge any civil rights violations, the alleged antitrust violation focuses on the issue.

The NCAA cited Howard's weak schedule, which includes four traditional, historically black colleges that are not members of Division I-AA -- three are member of Division II and one belongs to the NAIA -- as the reason Howard was excluded. NCAA spokesman Jim Marchiony said, "They played four {games} against non I-AA opponents and their loss was to a 4-6 I-AA team, so the record {9-1} is not as impressive as it looks. The strength of schedule is always a factor determining postseason {bids}."

Smith contended, "Since most of Howard's games are with historically black teams, it must be assumed that defendants want Howard to play historically white teams."

Smith added that, "The defendant's utilization of the NCAA's market power to unlawfully and unreasonably restrain Howard's selection of teams to play is a blatant and illegal use of that power" and therefore a violation of Section 1 of the Sherman Antitrust Act.

In its breach-of-contract claim, Howard alleges the NCAA did not deal in good faith or fairly when Jackson State Athletic Director Walter Reed, one of the four committee members and whose team was being considered for one of eight at-large bids, "was allowed to participate in the decision on whether his school would be allowed in the championship."

Smith charged that the selection process "was fraught with conflict of interest."

Reed, contacted yesterday, said he was cut off during the conference call when Jackson State's status was discussed.

Nevertheless, Howard officials, including Coach Willie Jeffries, charged that "the buddy-buddy system" played a part in some schools being included in the tournament and Howard being excluded. The four-man committee ranks the schools weekly and then chooses the at-large teams based on those rankings.

Committee members and other NCAA officials contacted yesterday denied that racism or a "buddy-buddy system" played any part in Howard being excluded.

But Shelly Steinbach, general counsel of the Washington-based American Council on Education who is active in NCAA issues, said Howard's exclusion "had not to do with discrimination, but an old-boys network that I don't understand . . . It's not like anybody's taking a potshot at you. It's like your coach doesn't drink with the right people. It doesn't make a difference whether you're black, white or a Martian."

Boston University Athletic Director Rick Taylor, who is in his first year as part of the I-AA football committee, said he was not surprised by Howard's disappointment at not being included in the field, but said the lawsuit and charges of racism did surprise him.

"Anytime you have a tournament and are limited to a certain number of teams to be included, the teams that don't get in are going to be unhappy," said Taylor. "I honestly think we picked the 16 best teams."

Smith, in commenting on the request for a restraining order, cited a 1985 appeals court decision in Cuomo v. U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, stating, "Probability of success is inversely proportional to the degree of irreparable injury evidenced. A stay may be granted with either a high probability of success and some injury, or vice versa."

By beginning the tournament Saturday without Howard, Smith argued, the university will be irreparably harmed beyond any available financial compensation and the judge will not be able "to render a meaningful decision on the merits" without the restraining order.

"Plaintiff will admit that money damages can compensate for some of the economic losses," Smith argued in the complaint. "But the loss of prestige to the university, the loss of recruiting power and the loss of the opportunity to generate alumni interest can never be recovered by money damages alone."