In a decision with wide-ranging ramifications, a federal appeals court in Philadelphia yesterday reversed a lower court ruling and decided the NCAA could use its current criteria for standardized test scores to determine who is eligible to compete, practice and receive athletic scholarships as college freshmen.

The majority of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals three-judge panel ruled the NCAA was not a recipient of federal funds in this case, and thus was not subject to standards set by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The majority ruling did not address the substantive issue held by a federal district court judge: that the standardized test-score provision of the NCAA's eligibility rules had a disparate effect on black student-athletes.

"They went off on a technicality, but the battle is not over," said Adele Kimmel, an attorney for Washington-based Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, which brought the class-action lawsuit in early 1997 on behalf of Tai Kwan Cureton and three other named plaintiffs.

Pending appeal, yesterday's ruling generally means the NCAA will not be subject to any federal civil rights laws in cases involving sex discrimination (Title IX), ethnic or racial discrimination or discrimination against the disabled.

Judge Morton I. Greenberg wrote that under the regulations of the Civil Rights Act, the federal funds the NCAA receives for its National Youth Sports Program (NYSP) do not subject the NCAA to the law unless the lawsuit is specifically brought against the NYSP. The NYSP is a youth enrichment program that provides summer education and sports instruction on campuses of both NCAA-member and nonmember institutions. It receives about $16 million annually in federal funds.

He also dismissed the claim that the NCAA was a recipient of federal funds because the member schools that receive federal funds cede their authority on intercollegiate sports to the NCAA. He wrote, "The fact that the institutions make . . . decisions cognizant of NCAA sanctions does not mean the NCAA controls them, because they have the option, albeit unpalatable, of risking sanctions or voluntarily withdrawing from the NCAA."

Kimmel called the ruling "a travesty and a complete injustice for the NCAA to run college athletics and be immune from the civil rights laws. The practical effect is that the NCAA is allowed to discriminate and there is nothing anyone can do about it, and we believe that is wrong."

Elsa Cole, the NCAA's general counsel, said, "We think it's a sound decision."

The appeals panel had stayed the lower court's ruling pending the outcome of this appeal, so the eligibility criteria pertaining to the rule first known as Proposition 48, and now known as Proposition 16, remain unchanged. The NCAA is reviewing those standards, a spokesman said.

The NCAA requires freshmen to have a high school diploma, a minimum standardized-test score and a minimum grade-point average in 13 core academic courses to compete. The test score and GPA requirements are based on an indexed, sliding scale. Students scoring less than 820 (out of a possible 1,600) on the Scholastic Assessment Test or 66 (out of 120) on the American College Test cannot participate in sports as freshmen, regardless of their GPA.

Kimmel said Cureton's attorneys will file a motion in January seeking a review by the full 3rd Circuit appeals court. Both sides expect the appeal process to reach the Supreme Court.