Tuesday, June 02, 2009

The Columbus Dispatch: Secrecy 101

The Family Eductational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which was created to protect the privacy of students' academic records, has come to be interpreted broadly and inconsistently by the NCAA's various member institutions, as the Columbus Dispatch discovered in a six-month investigation (thanks to a reader for the tip):

Across the country, many major-college athletic departments keep their NCAA troubles secret behind a thick veil of black ink or Wite-Out.

Alabama. Cincinnati. Florida. Florida State. Ohio State. Oklahoma. Oregon State. Utah. They all censor information in the name of student privacy, invoking a 35-year-old federal law whose author says it has been twisted and misused by the universities.

Former U.S. Sen. James L. Buckley said it's time for Congress to rein in the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which he crafted to keep academic records from public view.

A six-month Dispatch investigation found that FERPA, as it's commonly called, is a law with many conflicting interpretations. And that makes it virtually impossible to decipher what is going on inside a $5 billion college-sports world that is funded by fans, donors, alumni, television networks and, at most schools, taxpayers.


The Dispatch learned of the wildly different legal interpretations by sending public-records requests for athletics-related documents to all 119 colleges in the Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A). The goal was to gauge their openness and use of the FERPA law.

The requests sought airplane flight manifests for football-team travel to road games; lists of people designated to receive athletes' complimentary admission to football games; football players' summer-employment documents; and reports of NCAA violations.

The records could help shed light on the inner workings of college-sports programs, including identifying the people who have access to athletes -- some of whom are boosters and agents who, if acting improperly, can bring shame and fines to an entire athletic department.

In some cases, documents were unobtainable because of substantial fees charged by schools. For example, Maryland wanted $35,330 to produce the same documents that more than half the schools provided free.

Of the 69 schools that provided information:

• More than 80 percent released unedited information from ticket lists.

• About half did not censor flight manifests.

• Twenty percent gave full information about summer jobs held by football players.

• Ten percent provided unedited NCAA violations.

Here's how the ACC's public institutions responded to the requests:

NC State: Refused to provide any information about flight manifests, complimentary tickets, or summer job forms. Provided info about NCAA infractions but blacked out names and details.

Clemson: Fully disclosed flight manifests, refused to provide information about complimentary tickets, provided summer job forms but blacked out the students' names, provided information about NCAA violations but black out the names of some students and non-students.

Florida State: Fully disclosed flight manifests and documentation regarding complimentary tickets. Provided summer job forms and information about NCAA violations, but blacked out names and details in both cases.

Georgia Tech: Fully disclosed flight manifests, documentation regarding complimentary tickets, and summer job forms. Provided NCAA violation info but blacked out the names of students and some non-students.

Maryland: Demanded a $35,330 fee from the Dispatch for the public records, which, obviously, the paper could not pay. Maryland was one of 14 institutions that charged significant fees for its documents, but the only one to ask for more than a grand.

North Carolina: One of 11 institutions that did not produce a single document in six months.

Virginia: Like Maryland, Virginia charged a fee that made the records unobtainable to the Dispatch.

Virginia Tech: Provided flight manifests and information about complimentary tickets but blacked out the names of student athletes in both cases. Refused to provide summer job forms. Provided info regarding NCAA violations but blacked out the names of students and some non students.

Here's a link to the Dispatch's database, which, in addition to the above, includes athletics revenues and expenses, graduation rates, and APR reports for each school.

From most transparent to least:

Georgia Tech
Florida State

Fairly Open
Virginia Tech

What Are You Looking At, Pal?
NC State

No Hablamos Ingles
North Carolina

A Pretense Of Openness