COLUMBUS, Ohio A newspaper investigation has found that major college sports programs around the country shield information from public view using a law designed to protect students’ grades.
The Columbus Dispatch reported yesterday that major programs use wildly disparate interpretations of the 35-year-old Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act to shield information such as NCAA violations and team travel manifests.
The newspaper sent public-records requests to 119 colleges in the Football Bowl Subdivision, the division that consists of major programs such as Ohio State and Florida. The goal was to determine the openness of each school and whether and how much they use the student privacy law to block the release of certain information.
The newspaper requested flight manifests for football team travel for road games, lists of people who received complimentary admission to football games, football players’ summer employment documents and reports of NCAA violations.
Some schools charged substantial fees for the documents. The University of Maryland asked for $35,330 to provide the same documents that more than half the schools provided for free, the Dispatch reported.
Sixty-nine schools provided information responding to the records request:
- More than 80% released unedited information about ticket lists.
- About half didn’t censor flight manifests.
- 20% gave full information about football players’ summer jobs.
- 10% provided unedited information about NCAA violations.
The results of the Dispatch records request miffed former U.S. Sen. James Buckley, who crafted the student-privacy law to shield report cards and transcripts from public view.
“Those examples provide zero harm to the kids,” Buckley told the Dispatch in an interview. “That’s not what we intended. The law needs to be revamped. Institutions are putting their own meaning into the law.”
Schools varied widely in the information they were willing to provide. At one school, an “education record” is a document disclosing student grades and coursework, while another school deems any document containing a student’s name to be an education record.
Nebraska, Nevada and West Virginia refused to release any information on NCAA violations, citing student privacy. Utah State and Texas A&M didn’t withhold or censor any information.
Florida blacked out nearly every word of NCAA violations involving its football and basketball teams, but wasn’t as aggressive in hiding information about other sports.
Ohio State takes names out of nearly every record in the name of student privacy, including its own letterhead on faxes.
“I think we have been transparent,” said Jan Neiger, a lawyer in Ohio State’s general counsel’s office. “We provided the records. What’s been removed was the personally identifiable information of the student. We wouldn’t give you the record at all if we wanted to shield something.”
The U.S. Department of Education is required to oversee issues of compliance with student-privacy laws. The department said many schools appear to be misusing the law.
“It sounds like some institutions are using this act to hide things,” said Paul Gamill, who recently took over the office that monitors compliance with the privacy law and interprets its intent.
Athletes are told when they play college sports that they must forfeit some privacy. The newspaper reported that universities and the NCAA are quick to talk about students’ academic records when there is good news, but much less forthcoming when the information is embarrassing or costly to the schools.
Critics of the broad interpretation of the privacy law used by many institutions say the waiver athletes sign giving up some of their privacy allows the release of information when athletes violate rules.
“I don’t think it does,” said Kevin Lennon, vice president of academic affairs and membership affairs at the NCAA. Lennon said the NCAA can speak publicly about an athlete only to clarify inaccurate media reports.
Critics say the NCAA has no real oversight because it is run by a board of college presidents.