The legal battle brewing over the fairness of nationwide entrance requirements for student-athletes might leave many Catholic colleges relatively unscathed.

Federal District Court Judge Ronald Buckwalter in Philadelphia ruled March 8 that the Scholastic Aptitude Test minimum could not be used to exclude athletes from participating in varsity-level sports because it discriminates against African-American athletes, who often do not have the advantage of an adequate high school education.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association said it will appeal to a U.S. circuit court.

While other colleges may gain some recruitment advantage over the Catholic colleges, most coaches, athletic directors and other officials at Catholic institutions dismiss the SAT row as being of little concern since they already maintain entrance standards above those imposed by the NCAA.

At Catholic colleges, “the talent level goes beyond athletics to the point where [the student-athletes] are often involved in the Church, the community and every other aspect of life,” said Vincentian Father James Maher, campus minister for athletics at St. John's University in Jamaica, N.Y. “They are committed to being good people.”

Daniel Saracino, director of admissions at the University of Notre Dame, said his school doesn't go by whether a student applying for admission is an athlete or not.

“The average SAT at Notre Dame is 1270,” Saracino said. “We do admit athletes with lower SATs, but we won't consider them if we feel they can't make it academically here.”

Notre Dame, he added, looks at a prospective student's overall record, including courses taken, grade point average, and SAT score. They also interview student-athletes, to determine their commitment to the classroom. “If they ask the right questions about studies, they are more likely to be admitted,” he said.

Saracino said about 95% of all basketball and football players graduate. He cited Rocky Bleier and Jerome Heavens as examples of star collegiate and professional athletes who went on to successful business careers that required solid academic and intellectual preparation.

However, he said, there should be less emphasis on SAT scores.

“The SAT does seem to discriminate against minority students,” he maintained. “I wish more emphasis were placed on graduating more black students. Right now, it's at about 41%, and that's a real embarrassment.”

At another Division I school, Marquette University in Milwaukee, the SAT concern has never been an issue, officials said. Athletic director Bill Cords said Marquette's admissions policies, like those at Notre Dame, are strict.

“We have a competitive athletic program, and our coaches know what it takes to succeed,” Cords said. “We talk to a prospective student-athlete's coaches, teachers and guidance counselors. We demand to know an incoming student is committed to graduate and succeed in life. If you want to come to Marquette, you need to know we're as competitive in academics as we are in athletics. Our GPA [grade point average] for all students is 3.1.”

Georgetown University's associate vice president for university relations, Richard Conklin, shared a similar view. Georgetown is a Division I college in basketball, but wants only those student-athletes who can compete in a highly demanding academic environment.

“Our admissions requirements are very high, and we look seriously at the courses a student has taken in high school,” Conklin said. “The overall record must be excellent.”

On the East Coast, the Mid-American Athletic Conference competes at a level below Division I-A, also highly competitive in sports. This year the conference can boast two Rhodes scholars: Erin Whalen of Iona College, co-captain of the women's crew team while maintaining a perfect 4.0 grade point average; and José Vargas of Loyola College of Baltimore, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic and a biology major who plays on the school's soccer team.

Rich Petriccione, athletic director at Iona, is adamant about the need for minimum standards, including the SAT.

“We're at a disadvantage [with the Division I-A colleges] because we don't take just anyone,” he asserted. “At our school, just meeting minimum standards usually means a student won't be admitted.”

Petriccione pointed out that the 400 student-athletes at Iona had a grade point average of 3.0 for the fall 1998 semester.

Like Petriccione, Loyola's Athletic Director Joe Boylan enforces high academic standards for his athletes. “The big issue is, what do they do after they earn their degree?” Boylan said. “It's critical that they do graduate, and then become productive in society. That's our challenge.”

Loyola is indeed meeting that challenge; more than 80% of all student-athletes who attend the college earn a four-year degree. “If you create an academic environment, the student-athlete will respond positively,” Boylan said.

A similar view is held by the University of San Francisco, which also enjoys a high graduation rate among student-athletes. Jim Wiser, vice president for academic affairs, said the university looks at the overall student-athlete record, from class rank to courses taken, and grades earned in those courses. And, yes, they also use the SAT score as a criterion.

The question arises, what can be done, especially with minority students, to raise their SAT scores? One answer came from Robin Gusick, director of Community Outreach for Kaplan Educational Centers, a nationwide organization that prepares students-athletes and non-athletes for the dreaded SAT.

Gusick oversees the Good Sports Athletic Scholars Program, which was created to help financially disadvantaged student-athletes, largely minority, to meet NCAA standards for both the SAT and ACT (American College Test).

“We've had incredible results with this program,” she said. “Any student who completes the 35-hour Kaplan program is guaranteed to raise his or her SAT score by 100 points. For those in the Good Sports program, the average has been a 200-point increase.”

Gusick said her organization recruits students through high school coaches and guidance counselors, who then nominate minority students for Good Sports. There is no charge to the student.

She said standards are important, because the combined high school grade point average and SAT are the best indicators of how a student-athlete will do in college. She added that the SAT is a window on a larger societal issue.

“Disadvantaged students don't always have access to the best academic resources,” Gusick noted. “We help provide them with a chance to enhance their academic skills and open the door of opportunity to succeed as college-level students, as well as athletes.”

Notre Dame's sports information director, John Heisler, said, “We like to think student-athletes want our institution because of the academics, not because of our sports reputation.”

He noted that every sport must have its schedule approved by a faculty board, which dictates a student can't miss three classes because of games or practice in any semester. Heisler also said Notre Dame goes an extra step for student-athletes with a support service network that oversees an athlete's classroom progress.

“The SAT situation might represent a radical change for some colleges, but it won't have a tremendous effect on us,” Heisler said. “Our admissions people are interested in the quality of a prospective student's core courses and other academic factors.”

What happens next in the boiling SAT cauldron is uncertain. NCAA president Cedric Dempsey said the organization will consider over the next several weeks whether to utilize current grade-point-average and core-course standards as minimum academic rules, or move forward with no standardized rules in place while it appeals the judge's ruling.

— Jim Malerba writes from Hamden, Connecticut.