At its core, the NCAA is supposed to be about regulating fair play and promoting honest sportsmanship for college athletes. But the group's recent maneuvering to circumvent Florida's open records law is undermining that mission and feeds a disturbing trend of secrecy in collegiate sports.
At issue is the National Collegiate Athletic Association's latest correspondence with Florida State University, which was appealing sanctions in an academic cheating scandal by 61 athletes that could strip football coach Bobby Bowden of up to 14 of his 382 career wins. Earlier this month, the NCAA — a membership organization of colleges and universities — posted the document on a secure Web site that prohibits downloading or printing. That makes it technically impossible for FSU to provide the document to the public in compliance with Florida law. The NCAA defends the secrecy, saying it is needed to maintain confidentiality of documents.
Such confidentiality has no place at an institution heavily underwritten by taxpayers' dollars. As Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum wrote to the NCAA last week, state law requires private groups, when they are custodians of documents shared with a Florida agency, to also make the documents available to the public. Understandably, more than a dozen media organizations filed a lawsuit Monday against the NCAA, FSU and the school's outside attorneys. It would be in everyone's best interest if public institutions would exert their considerable influence in the NCAA to change the group's policy to follow the law. That should include one of the NCAA's newest executive committee members, former Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan, who is now president of Florida Atlantic University.
Unfortunately, the NCAA isn't alone in promoting this culture of secrecy in college athletics. A recent investigation by the Columbus Dispatch newspaper in Ohio found that nationwide, many universities are using a 35-year-old federal law aimed at maintaining the confidentiality of a student's academic record to also hide any document linked to a student athlete. A six-month investigation of 119 Division IA schools found many colleges were using FERPA — the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act — to hide "athletes who'd gambled, accepted payoffs, cheated, cashed in on their notoriety, and even sexually abused others . . . coaches who have broken recruiting rules or committed academic fraud . . . (and) rogue boosters."
Secrecy undermines the integrity of collegiate sports. It shields those who broke the law or NCAA rules. And it sets a horrible example for athletes and the community. As long as taxpayers foot part of the bill and college sports are such an integral part of American life, these records should be open to the public.