Last week, a group of Black student-athletes at Historically Black Colleges and Universities filed a class action lawsuit against the National Collegiate Athletic Association alleging the organization’s Academic Performance Program (APP) is intentionally discriminatory toward and punishes Black student-athletes at HBCUs.

The plaintiffs, J’ta Freeman, Austin Dasent and Troyce Manassa, allege the NCAA’s APP is based on a formula that includes metrics the NCAA knew would discriminate against Black student-athletes at HBCUs. The suit goes on to say the APP’s postseason bans represent a pattern of intentional discrimination against student-athletes at HBCUs.

According to HBCU Gameday, the APP requires teams to hit specific academic benchmarks using a metric called the Academic Progress Rate (APR) and the Graduation Success Rate (GSR). Punishment for failing to hit the benchmarks can range from cutting the number of practices a team can have to a postseason ban.

The suit states the benchmarks put HBCU athletes at a disadvantage because the mission of HBCUs has always been to give low-income, first generation and at-risk students an opportunity at a higher education.  The lawsuit alleges that the NCAA knew when they implemented the program that it would undermine HBCUs’ efforts to meet their mission to serve a historically underserved Black community, including Black student-athletes, because a study that compared HBCUs to similarly resourced non-HBCUs, which concluded race—rather than resources—was a predictor of APP penalties.

“These policies aren’t mere shortcomings – when more than 80% of postseason bans are meted out to HBCUs, and when an HBCU is 43 times more likely to be banned than a predominantly white institution, we cannot ignore these data are actively harming Black student-athletes,” said Je Yon Jung, senior attorney at May Lightfoot Law and co-counsel on the case.

“Instead of implementing a solution to fairly address student eligibility and graduation rates, the NCAA knowingly exacerbated racial disparities, even going so far as to worsen the inequity between HBCUs and their predominantly white counterparts,” said Elizabeth Fegan, partner and managing member of FeganScott, another law firm representing the plaintiffs.

Manassa and Dasent both played at Savannah State University during its time in the MEAC. Both were members of the 2016-17 team that was ineligible for postseason play. Both players claim they were unaware of SSU’s postseason ban when they committed to playing that season.

Manassa was a senior that season. He told NPR that the team’s ineligibility for postseason play had a direct impact on he and his teammates.

“It caused me a lot of emotional distress,” Manassa said. “Just knowing that we could’ve done something, knowing I could’ve had that opportunity. Also knowing I could’ve achieved some milestones, like [scoring] 1,000 points [for his career]. I finished with 900 and something. Just [not being able to] perform on the big stage. It was just a bummer for me overall.” 

The suit aims to hold the NCAA accountable for the APP’s discriminatory policies, alleging that the postseason bans deny players opportunity to compete with their peers and receive media coverage, which affects their career trajectory and lucrative post-college benefits.

Further, the suit maintains that the bans interfere with the contracts formed between institutions and their athletes, arguing that players are prevented from receiving the full benefits of their contracts and the athletes and schools cannot access the greater publicity and revenue from highly publicized events.

“The time of reckoning for the NCAA is long overdue,” said Fegan. “The NCAA has engaged in decades of lip service and failed ‘reforms’ to the APP, all without acknowledging that the system is acting just as it was intended – to the detriment of Black student-athletes. For too long the NCAA has relied on its constitution and bylaws to act as a façade for equity, and it’s time that it actually carries out the ‘fair and level’ playing field that it so heartily espouses.”

The suit seeks compensation and punitive damages on behalf of all Black student-athletes who participated in Division I NCAA sports at HBCUs from 2010 to present and who were injured through the implementation of the APP program.

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