Justice: NCAA Biased Against Learning-Disabled Students

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The National Collegiate Athletic Association's sports-eligibility requirements discriminate against students with learning disabilities and violate the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, the U.S. Department of Justice concluded last week.

Justice Department officials said they made their assessment after reviewing the files of more than 100 learning-disabled athletes who have had trouble with the NCAA's "initial-eligibility requirements"--academic requirements that students need to meet upon graduating from high school to participate in intercollegiate sports in the first year of college.

The ADA bars discrimination against people with disabilities. Title III of the law prohibits the imposition of eligibility criteria that tend to screen out individuals with disabilities. It also requires private organizations to make "reasonable modifications" to give people with disabilities equal access to their services.

In a letter to the NCAA, a Justice Department lawyer, Daniel W. Sutherland, said that NCAA rules on the certification of high schools classes as core courses meeting the association's requirements exclude many of the specialized classes designed to accommodate students with learning disabilities.

Waiver Issues

He said that the NCAA's process of individually assessing a student's case in order to waive the core-course requirement is flawed, because it provides services to learning-disabled students that are "unequal to or separate from those offered to others."

"The NCAA's efforts to prevent the exploitation of student athletes and protect the integrity and amateurism of college athletics should be applauded," wrote Mr. Sutherland, a lawyer in the department's disability-rights section. "We do not seek a lowering of the academic standards for students with learning disabilities, but that the NCAA modify the methods it uses to assess whether these students meet the standards."

Wally Renfro, a spokesman for the Overland Park, Kan.-based organization, said last week that he did not believe its policies violate Title III of the ADA. "I don't necessarily agree with the letter," he said. "We've cooperated with the Department of Justice over the last couple of years to accommodate learning-disabled students. Several of [the department's] suggestions are already in place. The Justice Department is confused or misunderstands our policies."

He said that NCAA officials, whom he characterized as having a good working relationship with the department, will have to meet in the coming months to iron out some of the discrepancies.

In the Justice Department letter, the agency notes that 71 percent of athletes without learning disabilities received NCAA approval last year to compete, while only 29 percent of students with learning disabilities were granted such approval. The department recommended that the NCAA:

  • Rework its core-course regulations to include special education, compensatory, and remedial classes that provide the same types of knowledge and skills that students without disabilities receive in their core curriculum;
  • Revise its waiver process so that such decisions are made during a high school senior's spring term, rather than in the summer after graduation; and,
  • Refrain from using standardized-test scores as the sole condition for an athlete's eligibility.

The hardest determination regarding learning-disabled athletes, Mr. Renfro said, "boils down to an honest disagreement about whether some courses are core courses because of their content."

Mr. Sutherland said the Justice Department was willing to negotiate an out-of-court settlement with the NCAA provided that the organization changes its policies on learning-disabled students' eligibility status and extends the athletic-eligibility status of 34 learning-disabled students who were not qualified to compete as freshmen in the last academic year for an additional year of eligibility

The department also wants the NCAA to grant 11 students who were denied eligibility by the waiver subcommittee last year partial-qualifier status that would grant them some athletic privileges; and to provide monetary compensation to five athletes who filed bias complaints with the department.

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