TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: Star athletes are big wheels on campus, but whose wheels are they driving?

NCAA Division I football players are among the world’s most finely conditioned athletes, capable of bench-pressing a quarter of a ton, dashing 40 yards in less than 4.5 seconds, and leaping nearly four feet in the air from a standing start.

Signaling for left turns? Eh, maybe not so much.

Turns out that athletes with a gift for finding the end zone have no superhuman skill at finding a legal parking spot. And the blazing speed that’s such an asset when chasing down a wide receiver is not nearly so helpful in a 30 mph school zone.

Using the trail of public records left by driving infractions, journalists have illuminated potential wrongdoing by college athletes much more interesting than parking next to a hydrant.

The recent court-ordered release of thousands of pages of public records from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill athletic department — records the college fought to withhold under a dubious claim of student confidentiality — is raising questions about what elite UNC players are driving, and how these “amateur” student athletes afforded multiple vehicles.

Over a 22-month period spanning 2007-09, one UNC student-athlete accumulated 93 parking tickets under nine different license plate numbers, suggesting he was driving numerous different vehicles, according to some database sleuthing by the Daily Tar Heel student newspaper.

North Carolina journalists are following a trail originally blazed by reporters with the University of Maryland’s independent student newspaper, The Diamondback, who in 1998 successfully fought for the release of athlete parking records as part of their investigation into a ticket-fixing scandal.

Reporters for The Columbus Dispatch encountered no student-confidentiality issues in reporting on the driving habits of Ohio State’s star quarterback, Terrelle Pryor, because Pryor helpfully incurred his citations off-campus and outside the jurisdiction of OSU police. Using the description of vehicles from Pryor’s traffic tickets and matching them with state motor-vehicle registration records, the Dispatch was able to show he was pulled over three times driving a car titled to a car dealership or car salesman. (OSU later declared at least two of the three episodes harmless, determining that Pryor had simply borrowed a dealer loaner while his car was in the shop.)

The Dispatch also has made enterprising use of vehicle title records to find out where Ohio State athletes are getting their cars, and for how much. Suspiciously, the paper trail frequently leads back to a single used-car salesman, who — according to a separate public-records request by the Dispatch — was a frequent beneficiary of complementary football tickets left for him by OSU players.

In states where motor vehicle registration data is a matter of public record, the most likely place to find it is either with the state Department of Motor Vehicles or with the state Department of Revenue, the tax-collecting agency. In states where there is not a publicly accessible state-level database, ownership information on vehicles still may be traceable through county tax records, because an auto loan is a lien and liens typically are recorded in the county courthouse where the sale occurred.