Kevin Ross never distinguished himself as a basketball player at Creighton University, but he nonetheless became one of the nation's best-known college athletes because he could read no better than a 10-year-old.

After attending the Omaha school from 1978 to 1982, Ross revealed in print, on television and as a witness on Capitol Hill that he didn't really master reading until he joined a class of third graders in Chicago after he left Creighton.

Ross's story became an open sore on the academic integrity of big-time college sports. The NCAA responded in 1983 by adopting new academic standards that high school athletes had to meet to get an athletic scholarship as a college freshman.

Last March, however, a federal judge invalidated those rules, saying they violated civil rights law because the NCAA's requirement of a minimum standardized-test score created an "unjustified disparate impact against African Americans." An appeals court has allowed the NCAA to keep the rules in place while the case makes its way through the courts, and in April, NCAA officials announced plans to implement new rules for the 1999-2000 school year.

But a top NCAA official told The Washington Post last week that the rules, known as Proposition 16 and, in an earlier form, Proposition 48, will remain firmly in place this school year while new academic data is analyzed.

"Until there's a compelling reason to change Proposition 16, we continue to be committed to it," said Graham B. Spanier, president of Penn State University and chair of the NCAA Division I Board of Directors.

Whatever the outcome, colleges remain far from resolving the nagging dilemma posed by the persistent gap in graduation rates between white and black athletes and the wide disparity in the numbers of white and black athletes who have been deemed ineligible to play sports as freshmen under these rules.

NCAA research shows that 52 percent of all athletes who entered Division I schools as freshmen in the fall of 1984 -- two years before the minimum standards took effect -- graduated within six years. For all athletes who entered major colleges in the fall of 1991 -- the last year for which statistics are available -- the figure rose to 57 percent. Among black male athletes entering school in those same years, the graduation rate rose from 33 percent to 41 percent.

Those numbers could mean that the NCAA's standards worked, that by screening out students who could not handle college work, universities boosted the success rate for both white and black athletes. The minimum scores were set so low that anyone who couldn't get over the threshold could be assumed "not to have a chance of making it in college at all," said William Friday, president emeritus of the University of North Carolina and a member of one of the committees that shaped the standards.

But the same numbers also can be seen as evidence that the minimum standards had, as the court concluded, an unfair impact on blacks: Among athletes recruited by Division I schools last fall, 20.6 percent of black recruits were ineligible vs. 3.7 percent of white recruits.

"That's pretty strong information," said Louisiana State University chancellor emeritus James H. Wharton, who helped write the standards that became Proposition 48. "That's powerful data. Powerful in the sense that we've got a lot of explaining to do. It's troubling."

In throwing out the minimum standards, U.S. District Judge Ronald L. Buckwalter wrote that the NCAA did not produce "any evidence" demonstrating that its rule "serves, in a significant way, the goal of raising student-athlete graduation rates."

Since the mid-1980s, graduation rates have risen for all students -- not just athletes -- at Division I schools, according to NCAA data. Over the past decade, colleges also have spent more money on academic support and tutoring for athletes. And since the mid-1980s, athletes have been required by NCAA rules to show measurable progress toward earning a degree.

While some NCAA officials argue that their standards boosted graduation rates and left open the door to a college education, others say the results of the minimum standards are unclear.

"There are multiple factors in this increase in graduation rates," said John J. McArdle, a University of Virginia psychology professor and NCAA consultant.

The NCAA is appealing Buckwalter's ruling, which came in a lawsuit brought by Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, on behalf of four black athletes from Philadelphia who had failed to meet the NCAA minimum scores.

Setting the Bar

On a spring weekend in 1982, 14 leaders of college sports and higher education, including coaching icons Joe Paterno and Bobby Knight, secretly developed what became one of the most racially contentious rules in big-time college athletics.

After two days of discussions in the isolation of Sapelo Island, Ga., 7 1/2 miles off the coast and accessible to the general public only by ferry, the group agreed that any athlete who wanted to play major college sports as a freshman would have to attain a minimum score on one of the nation's college entrance exams, the Scholastic Assessment Test or ACT Assessment.

A minimum test score seemed a reliable way to determine whether any prospective college freshman was prepared to succeed academically. But an examination by The Washington Post has found that in choosing its minimum scores, the Sapelo Island group never considered readily available data that showed most white students were scoring above the group's proposed minimums, and most black students were not.

The Sapelo Island group proposed -- and the NCAA approved -- minimum scores of 700 out of a possible 1,600 on the SAT and 15 out of a possible 36 on the ACT Assessment. (Under revised scoring systems, the minimums are now 820 on the SAT and 17 on the ACT.)

The average SAT score for black students who planned to attend college in the fall of 1981 was 694, compared to 925 for all white students, according to the College Board, which sponsors the SAT.

The average ACT score for black students at the time was 12.4, compared to 19.3 for white students, according to ACT, Inc.

Nine of the 12 living members of the Sapelo Island group agreed to recent interviews, and all nine agreed that the potential racial impact of a minimum score was not discussed. All the participants were white. And some members of the Sapelo Island group say their test-score recommendations may have been different if they had seen the SAT and ACT data.

"If those data had been in front of us, and if perhaps there had been somebody there that would have, you know, pushed us a little to look at that data, things could have been different," said one member of the group, former Virginia Tech president William E. Lavery. "Data like you're presenting, I didn't know it. Should we have had somebody pull it all together? I suppose, in retrospect, yes."

"That's kind of amazing, those numbers," another member of the group, Georgia Athletic Director Vince Dooley, said of the racial gap in scores. "If we had those figures, yeah, it would have been brought up and we should have discussed it."

The 1981 SAT and ACT statistics also were not considered by an American Council on Education (ACE) committee of 39 university chief executives who refined and endorsed the Sapelo Island proposal, said several members of that panel.

The original motive behind setting tougher standards was to address the abysmal level of academic performance some colleges were permitting from their athletes. "Some college athletes couldn't read or write," Wharton said. "Presidents had this concern about liability for having done that."

"We looked at this as an opportunity to protect students from exploitation," said former Harvard University president Derek C. Bok, who chaired the ACE committee. "So whether it impacted blacks more than whites, the point was: Whoever it applied to would have the opportunity to get a year of academic experience before having to undergo the massive distractions" created by participation in college sports.

"That was a time," Bok said, recalling the early 1980s, "when everyone was up in arms about the fact that athlete graduation rates were so low. One wasn't looking at excluding people from athletics, but protecting them so that, bearing in mind how terribly few ever get into the ranks of professional athletes, as many as possible would get a genuine college education."

As recently as the 1970s, athletes could participate in college sports as long as they had a high school diploma and at least a 2.0 GPA on a 4.0 scale. By the late 1970s, news reports surfaced about college stars who couldn't read, publicly humiliating some universities.

In spring 1982, then-Georgia president Fred C. Davison decided to push for action. Working with Chuck Neinas, executive director of the College Football Association, a defunct consortium of 61 big-time football schools, he planned a meeting of 14 leaders of college sports.

Davison invited three other university presidents, four athletic directors, one conference commissioner, one law professor, one football coach (Penn State's Paterno) and two men's basketball coaches (Indiana's Knight and North Carolina's Dean Smith).

"Dean Smith couldn't make it, so I invited [then-Georgetown men's basketball coach] John Thompson to take his place," Neinas recalled. Thompson would have been the only black member of the group. Thompson declined repeated requests for an interview about why he did not attend.

Davison did not tell participants where the meeting would be held, instructing them only to gather on the afternoon of May 7, 1982, at a gate in the Atlanta airport. From there, they flew on a chartered DC-3 to Brunswick, Ga. The group was driven to a dock in nearby Darien, Ga., and ushered onto a boat. Destination: Sapelo Island.

At the Sapelo dock, Davison loaded his guests onto the back of a flatbed truck -- "They thought they were going to get on mules next," he said -- for the short ride to their home for the next three days: A former plantation manor, known as the Big House, once owned by tobacco magnate R.J. Reynolds.

The destination was kept secret "just for fun," Davison said. "And we really wanted to be free of everybody. The word would have gotten out" to the media.

In a second-floor parlor decorated like a circus tent, the group focused on creating a national academic standard for prospective college athletes. Their discussions were free-wheeling -- participants recall a shouting match between Knight and Southern California president James Zumberge over dinner -- but racial differences in test scores never came up.

"In the back of our minds, we were thinking about that," Lavery recalled. "But frankly, in those days, you couldn't talk about that. You know, I mean, that was not appropriate."

The day they returned to the mainland, the Sapelo Island group outlined their proposals in a letter to the chiefs of all Division I schools. Then, the ACE appointed 39 university presidents to examine the Sapelo Island group's recommendations and write a formal proposal for NCAA member schools to consider.

Two of the 39 committee members were black -- and one of those two later said he was invited to join the group only a week before the convention, after the presidents had set their proposal.

"In putting the committee together, I think we inadvertently thought about major athletic powerhouses," said Sheldon Steinbach, the ACE's general counsel since 1974. "We certainly did not have a sufficient amount of minority representation."

Like the Sapelo Island group, the ACE committee did not discuss the racial implications of the test-score requirements, several participants said. "It should have been an issue . . . because the blacks weren't scoring very high and this would probably preclude a lot of them from playing at Division I schools," former Florida State University president Bernard F. Sliger said.

The ACE recommendation -- virtually identical to the Sapelo Island group's -- became Proposal No. 48 at the 1983 NCAA convention. Athletes who did not meet the requirements could not practice with their teams as freshmen, could not receive an athletic scholarship as freshmen (they could pay their own way that year, or try to obtain nonathletic aid) and could not regain that lost season of eligibility.

At the convention, many presidents of historically black schools voiced strong opposition to the proposal. But most delegates vigorously defended it. "Maybe Proposal 48 is not the answer," Paterno said then. "I am not an expert on test scores and what have you. But number 48 is a challenge. And I would not sell anybody short, especially the kinds of competitors I have been around who happen to be black. They will take the challenge."

Proposal 48 passed by a show of hands.

Toughening the Rules

Proposition 48 took effect in August 1986 -- the 3 1/2-year lead time giving high schools time to revise their academic programs, and athletes time to take the required number of college prep courses.

As early as 1984, various NCAA committees began recommending that Proposition 48 be changed because data showed it would have a disproportionate impact on black and low-income student-athletes.

But once minimum test scores had been set, there was no turning back. While alternatives to Proposition 48 continued to be proposed, the NCAA's Division I schools repeatedly rejected alternative standards. Lower standards would surely mean lower graduation rates, many university presidents reasoned.

Eventually, the full NCAA membership chose to toughen freshman eligibility rules. Under Proposition 16, which was passed in 1992 and implemented in 1996, the minimum number of core courses was raised from 11 to 13, and athletes needed at least a 2.5 GPA (instead of a 2.0) if they had the minimum SAT score of 700, and at least a 900 SAT score (instead of a 700) if they had the minimum GPA of 2.0.

Since 1996, NCAA member schools have occasionally eased the standards. Athletes who meet part of Proposition 16's requirements can petition to regain a fourth season of eligibility. In recent years, the percentage of black recruits declared ineligible to play as freshmen has fallen from 27.3 percent in 1996 to 20.6 percent in 1998. And the test scores gap between the races has narrowed.

The NCAA has not tracked what has become of athletes who were recruited by Division I schools but did not meet these standards (there have been 16,465 such athletes since 1994, the first year the association began compiling this statistic). It is not known if they eventually wound up at major colleges, attended lower-division NCAA schools or junior colleges, or quit school entirely. A study, though, is underway.

"I just know that we've got some kids that are probably in the wrong place -- I mean, in low-level jobs -- because the opportunity door was closed by Proposition 48 and Proposition 16," said Frederick S. Humphries, president of Florida A&M, a historically black university.

Battling in Court

In 1995, Adele P. Kimmel, a lawyer at Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, began a search for victims of the NCAA rules. On Dec. 21 of that year, she met with a guidance counselor and several students at Simon Gratz High in inner-city Philadelphia.

"All of them were doing extremely well in their classes, but all were having trouble with their SATs," Kimmel said. "They all were finding that their ticket, so to speak, to college sports was being taken away from them because they couldn't get this arbitrary cutoff score."

The students included Tai Kwan Cureton, who had a 2.8 GPA and was president of the senior class, and Leatrice Shaw, who had a 3.5 GPA and ranked fifth in a class of 305. Both were black track and field athletes who were not eligible to compete at Division I schools as freshmen because they had failed to meet the minimum test scores.

Cureton and Shaw became the lead plaintiffs in the class-action suit against the NCAA. Cureton went on to Wheaton College, a Division III school where the minimum standards do not apply, and Shaw enrolled at the University of Miami, a Division I school where she was not eligible to play as a freshman.

NCAA's Next Step

The 17-year debate now moves to the NCAA Division I Board of Directors, a group of 15 presidents that will continue its yearlong examination of alternatives to Proposition 16 that would place less weight on test scores. NCAA President Cedric Dempsey said in June that a new sliding scale, allowing a higher GPA to compensate for lower test scores, likely would be implemented by September.

Looking back over the past 17 years, Dempsey said, "I think we should have given greater consideration to . . . what kind of impact [the requirement] was going to have on . . . minorities."

But last week Penn State President Spanier said a new sliding scale is only one option on the table. Proposition 16 may require "some fine-tuning," Spanier said, but he declined to speculate on how, if at all, the rule will be changed.

Ross, the player whose plight spurred the NCAA into action, is now 40 and in his seventh year as a custodian at his former middle school in Kansas City, Kan., where he also is, at the behest of the eighth-grade boys basketball coach, a mentor to the team.

While Ross works toward a college degree, with the goal of becoming a guidance counselor, his 17-year-old son, 6-foot-7 Kevin Shorter, has just completed his junior year at a suburban Detroit high school and is being recruited by Division I schools.

But Shorter's mother, Sheila Shorter-McBride, is determined that the son shall not retrace the steps of the father's path. Ever since her son was in ninth grade, she was been in touch with the NCAA and has been keeping a detailed record book of his progress toward meeting the requirements.

Said Ross: "If they had those rules [before he went to Creighton], it would have helped me." It still bothers him that his teachers from middle school through college "passed me for my basketball ability. I just hope it doesn't happen to a lot of other kids."

Some members of the Sapelo Island and ACE committees believe their rules have restored some integrity to college athletics.

"Are you going to tell me you're helping black students with scores like that by pushing them into intercollegiate athletics?" former Harvard president Bok says. "Or is it better for them to take a year out . . . with education, rather than just satisfying the ambitions of the athletic department? One can talk all you want about how hard this is on black players. But to me the really hard thing is luring them into a basketball program and graduating that ridiculously small amount, all of whom hope they are going to be great professional players and almost none of them will be. And then they're high and dry."

But others from the original group have second thoughts.

"We didn't get the whole job done," former Virginia Tech president Lavery said. "And here we are 17 years later."

"I once had a black football player who had a 480 on the SAT and he actually graduated," said longtime Georgia athletic director Dooley. "Today, he's a judge."

Staff writer Mark Asher contributed to this report.

Debatable Standards

In 1982, college sports leaders developed the plan that became Proposition 48. The minimum standardized-test scores chosen to determine whether freshmen would be eligible for major-college sports were judged to be "very low" but were not based on any research. These are the average scores for students who entered college in the fall of 1981, just months before college sports leaders first recommended the test-score standard for athletes.

SAT

Prop 48 requirement: 700*

Black students: 694

White students: 925

Perfect score 1,600

ACT

Prop 48 requirement: 15**

Black students: 12.4

White students: 19.3

Perfect score: 36

*820 after the test was recentered in 1995.

**17 after the test was revised in 1989.

SOURCE: College Board, ACT