TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: An end-run around NCAA information roadblocks

Despite its deep entanglement with institutions of state government, the National Collegiate Athletics Association has managed to convince the courts that it is not subject to the same disclosure laws that apply to its state-college members. But that does not mean getting documents about the NCAA’s dealings with college athletic programs is impossible.

Correspondence that is written by, or received and kept by, a state university’s athletic department should be a classic public record under every state’s open-records law. Notably, this includes records of recruiting violations or instances of academic dishonesty that NCAA member institutions are obligated to self-report.

Using their state’s open-records act, reporters from The Columbia Daily Tribune recently obtained correspondence between the University of Missouri and the NCAA documenting a rise in so-called “secondary” violations by members of the Mizzou coaching staff, in particular those arising out of taboo text-message exchanges with football recruits.

College athletic departments are not, however, uniformly forthcoming with this information. Reporters from the Columbus Dispatch documented universities’ patchy compliance with their disclosure obligations in the award-winning 2009 series, “Sececy 101.” The Dispatch found that athletic departments frequently raised dubious claims of student confidentiality to withhold documents that had little relation to students’ educational activities — including the same types of records that the Tribune successfully obtained.

If student privacy was ever a legitimate excuse, that excuse was torpedoed by a Florida appeals court’s ruling in a 2009 case brought by the Associated Press and other news organizations seeking NCAA documents shared with Florida State University.

In October 2009, Florida’s 1st District Court of Appeals ruled that journalists could have access to NCAA reports regarding an academic cheating probe at FSU. Although the news organizations agreed to accept the documents with student names removed, the court questioned whether that safeguard was even necessary, because the documents were not “education records” belonging to the individual student athletes.

Bottom line: Records generated or kept by state university athletic departments concerning possible NCAA violations should definitely be accessible with student names removed, and likely are obtainable even with the names intact.