At UNC, athletes' records contain many deletions

dkane@newsobserver.comJuly 18, 2012 

What started as a case of UNC football players taking perks from agents has now moved into a major case of academic fraud involving the longtime chairman of African and Afro-American studies.

N&O FILE PHOTO

Try to follow this part of a report that is part of the NCAA’s investigation into UNC-Chapel Hill football:

“Student-Athlete (blank) was interviewed two times. During his first interview, when asked about the last time he had contact with (blank), his response was ‘a week or so ago.’

“At the onset of his second interview, before being asked specifically about this issue, Student-Athlete (blank) indicated that he wished to clarify this issue. He said that he had stopped by (blank) house briefly (maximum of 10 minutes) the night before the first interview. He stated that he was on his way to (blank), so he stopped by (blank)’s house to ‘see if she had some cookies.’ ”

That passage is within more than 200 pages of records UNC attorneys turned over last week to The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer and other media companies that had joined in a public records lawsuit to try to learn more about the UNC football scandal. The document and many others are full of wholesale deletions, some of which remove entire paragraphs and more of information.

On Thursday, lawyers for media companies will try to convince a state Superior Court judge that the documents should have been released – without the university’s censorship – months ago. The lawyers will also argue for the release of other records pertinent to the NCAA investigation that the university is still holding.

The release of heavily redacted documents last week is one of many examples in which university officials have held back information in the school’s worst athletic scandal in at least five decades.

What started as a case of football players taking perks from agents has now moved into a major case of academic fraud involving the longtime chairman of African and Afro-American studies. Evidence from the academic fraud case shows that basketball players at one of the nation’s elite programs benefited from no-show classes as well.

In the case above, the censored passage suggests that just before the football player was to have been interviewed by NCAA investigators, he had met with a tutor suspected of providing improper help to that player and several others. The investigation later reported that a former tutor, who has been identified as Jennifer Wiley, had given improper help. She has repeatedly declined to talk about the case.

The redacted documents indicate that other teammates were at the tutor’s home as the NCAA investigation caught fire, but players denied the purpose of the gathering was to discuss the NCAA probe or for students to get their stories straight about it.

Protecting ‘education’ records

University officials have often cited two reasons for not making information public. The first is a 37-year-old federal law known as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. But the law’s author, former U.S. Sen. James Buckley, told The Columbus Dispatch two years ago that the law was intended to protect students’ grades and transcripts, and has been used too broadly by universities to hide information related to athletic issues.

The second is that the NCAA, according to the university, does not want information related to its investigations made public, and takes extreme steps to prevent its release. Information is often communicated orally, preventing the creation of a written record, and important information is given to outside lawyers or deposited on a non-university Web site that the NCAA controls.

Interviews of coaches, players and employees as well as some documents being sought by the media are not public because the information is kept elsewhere, university lawyers argue. The former head coach, Butch Davis, says that also applies to his personal cellphone records, which are also being sought by the media.

A strip club visit

The university cited the privacy law in refusing to release parking ticket information related to athletes as the probe began, saying they were an “education” record. The university issued an assuring statement that it had checked and could confirm parking tickets went to players or their family members while saying nothing about the source of paying them off.

A judge eventually ordered the ticket information released, and Chancellor Holden Thorp approved an appeal, saying the judge’s ruling “put the privacy rights of all of our students at risk.” The Court of Appeals disagreed.

The ticket information showed that the tutor had paid nearly $1,800 in fines for one player and that 12 players accumulated a total of more than $13,000 in parking fines, some unpaid. The NCAA specifically cited the tutor’s payment, made in August 2010 as classes were about to begin, in its infractions report.

The university is also using its duty to protect education records to justify its redactions in other documents, including one detailing a football player’s visit to a strip club.

The records released in recent days are in response to N&O requests filed two years ago.

University officials have also held back information related to the academic fraud case involving the former chairman of the African and Afro-American studies department. The case involves 54 classes, mostly filled with athletes, that had little or no instruction.

On Aug. 24, for example, University General Counsel Leslie Strohm told NCAA officials in a phone conversation that one of those classes included 18 football players and one former player.

But five days later, when the N&O requested information about classes that did not meet and required only a term paper, and how many football and basketball players were in them, the university did not disclose the class. It took additional N&O requests in recent weeks to produce the information, 10 months after the original request.

Kane: 919-829-4861

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