One day, you don't get the job or the promotion. You are rejected for the loan or club membership. Or, like Howard University, you are bypassed for the NCAA Division I-AA football playoffs, even though you have a better record than all 16 teams that were invited.

You came so close, but, for reasons which almost sound reasonable, you were not picked. In fact, you were next in line. If you'd only filled out the paper work earlier or understood the rules better, you might've been chosen. Sorry, nothing personal.

Was it prejudice? Should you take the NCAA to court, seeking $27 million in damages, as Howard is now doing?

Prejudice seldom leaves fingerprints. So, we usually have to deduce the presence of prejudice from its effects. No one can sound so rational as the person with a bias. He's already convinced himself. One thing we do know about discrimination is that it despises the light and loves a dark, quiet apathy.

That's why Howard is right to sue the NCAA. Sometimes, you have to throw a fit, though you know it probably won't do much immediate good. Scream, if it makes you feel better. Angry words and symbolic postures, even futile ones -- as Howard's charges probably are unprovable and doomed -- can serve a purpose. Getting a problem in the open is a first step.

"What we embarked upon today was not a skirmish," Howard President James Cheek said Tuesday. "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 . . . if we were too willingly and gracefully accept the decision of the NCAA committee."

Boil this down in legal terms and what does it mean? Probably not much. The school has about as much chance of denting the NCAA with its antitrust and breach-of-contract briefs as the Bison would have against Oklahoma. But some indignities can't be taken lying down.

Beanie Cooper of Indiana State (yes, we're taking names) and his four-man selection committee have enough specious diversionary rationalizations to form a serviceable smoke screen around their ugly error. They can run around the maypole of "common opponents" and "strength of schedule" forever and it's doubtful anybody can absolutely prove Howard should be in these playoffs (which begin Saturday unless Howard gets a temporary restraining order today.)

Cooper defends the decision by citing two irrelevant side issues.

First, he points out that Howard's athletic director was slow to file some paperwork, thus preventing Howard from being ranked in the top 20 until more than a month into the season. This is true. But so what? That was then; this is now. The committee had all the time and facts it needed. Blaming Bill Moultrie is a red herring.

Second, Cooper points out that the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference snafued its schedule, thus costing its league champ an automatic bid. True again. But not germaine. In fact, if MEAC champs deserved a bid in the past, then isn't the burden of proof on Cooper and Co. to prove that Howard is an MEAC champ that does not deserve a bid?

The Cooper committee's own rankings are doubly damning. All 16 eligible teams ranked above Howard were included in the playoffs. How can you exclude the champion of a conference deemed good enough to merit an automatic bid in the past by such a slender margin?

When hunting prejudice, one test works as well as any. Imagine a similar situation involving a group that is seldom discriminated against. Remember, the bias against Howard may not entirely be one of race. Old-boy networks of strong teams and leagues do not like to see upstart programs succeed quickly. Howard's always been a football have-not. "Ins" vs. "Outs" may be at work here.

What if, a few years hence, the NCAA has a 16-team tournament in I-A? Suppose Yale, with its history of strong academics and weak football, has a team that goes 9-1 with 399 points, a 244-point margin of victory and the leading rusher and scorer in college football. Yale makes the top 20 despite one early season loss. Weak schedule, many say. Yale agrees.

In its last game, Yale finally plays a ranked power -- No. 14 Alabama at Birmingham. Score: Yale 12, Alabama 7 -- with a goal line stand in the final minute on the road in Birmingham.

That same day, a Texas Tech team that has four losses and is tied in the rankings with Yale at No. 20 beats an unimpressive, unranked squad.

Does anybody believe for one instant that Yale, with a better record than any team in the field, would be excluded while Texas Tech got invited?

Texas Tech would've proven already it could not realistically be considered a potential national champion -- look at those four losses. But what about Yale with its amazing stats? Maybe those 62-0 and 56-7 wins over Princeton and Brown really did mean something. What if Yale actually had the stuff to reach the championship game?

Nobody would dream of denying Yale the chance to prove or disprove itself on the field. No one would dream of preferring Texas Tech and its four losses, (even against a tough schedule) for the final 16. Yale, by a landslide.

Yet this is what's happened to Howard vis-a-vis North Texas State.

When Cooper and the committeemen who opposed Howard look in their private hearts to see if they unconsciously made a prejudice-tainted decision, one thought might help them see clearly.

Boo-lah, boo-lah.