This week, when 64 college basketball teams take the floor to compete in the 1999 NCAA tournament, fans can be reasonably certain that the players are, at least to some degree, actual students at the colleges they represent. While it's probable that a good number of them are not as academically proficient as their nonathletic classmates, it's a safe bet that they can at least read, write, and do arithmetic.

Sadly, this wasn't always the case. As recently as 1982, in fact, Kevin Ross, a basketball player at Creighton University, completed four years of eligibility at that institution of higher learning and promptly enrolled at a Chicago grammar school. He was a functional illiterate. And, while Ross's case was undoubtedly extreme, college athletes in the early '80s--particularly black athletes like Ross--had markedly low graduation rates. From 1983 to 1985, black college athletes graduated at rates of 35 percent, 35 percent, and 36 percent, respectively. For those same years, white college athletes graduated at rates of 58 percent, 59 percent, and 59 percent, respectively.

Thankfully, this began to change in 1986, when the NCAA established minimum eligibility requirements for incoming freshmen athletes. No longer could colleges just admit anyone and put him in uniform. Recruits now had to meet some basic academic standards: the current standards, commonly referred to as Proposition 16, consist of a high school diploma, a 2.0 GPA in 13 core high school courses, and a score of 820 out of 1,600 on the SAT. Not surprisingly, student athletes' graduation rates began to rise. Today, the NCAA projects that 62.5 percent of white student athletes will graduate; the projected graduation rate for black student athletes has shot up to 59.2 percent.

This would seem to confirm the thinking of those (like TNR) who believe that a serious emphasis on real academic standards should be an integral part of education policy at all levels. But Judge Ronald L. Buckwalter of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania looked at this apparent success story and saw racial discrimination. On March 8, he struck down the NCAA's freshman eligibility standards. Buckwalter concluded that Proposition 16 was a violation of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, since it "has an unjustified disparate impact against African Americans." The concept of disparate impact means that if ostensibly race-neutral hiring or admissions practices--practices that appear nondiscriminatory and may very well be intended to be nondiscriminatory--end up depriving more minorities of jobs or university admissions slots than whites, then those practices may be illegal.

In a purely mechanical sense, Buckwalter is correct: Proposition 16 has affected more blacks than whites. In 1997, 21.4 percent of blacks failed to qualify for admission under the NCAA standards, as compared with 4.2 percent of whites. Moreover, data from 1994 to 1996 show that there has been a slight drop in the number of blacks among first-year scholarship college athletes, from 23.6 percent to 20.3 percent. These are the numbers that black college coaches--like Temple basketball coach John Chaney--seize on when they claim, as Chaney did in a New York Times op-ed welcoming Buckwalter's decision, that "countless young black men have been damaged" by the standards.

But, in focusing narrowly on the disparate impact in admissions, Buckwalter and the black coaches have lost sight of the bigger picture. A more nuanced view of the standards would recognize that they do indeed have a disparate impact on blacks--but that, in the terms that really count (helping young men and women with a meaningful education), the impact of the tougher standards is disproportionately favorable to blacks.

Why? Because, before the standards, black student athletes--by dint of their disproportionate representation among the student athlete population--were disproportionately exploited by the college athletic system. Yes, some coaches in some programs at some schools (especially those with dedicated black coaches like Chaney, who pushes his players hard to make use of their educational opportunities) maintained their academic and athletic integrity. But the vast majority did not. Far too often, colleges would admit academically unqualified football and basketball players, enroll them in sham courses, and then profit from their athletic performances until they departed four years later without a degree. Since only a small percentage of college athletes actually go on to play at the professional level, that meant that many of them were leaving college having enriched their universities while having received basically nothing in return. That was the system that produced Kevin Ross. And that's the system that Judge Buckwalter may have reinstated.

This article originally ran in the March 29, 1999, issue of the magazine.