Groups looking for more oversight of athletics get cold shoulder in Washington

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 16, 2013 

  • Sunshine Week

    This concludes our coverage of Sunshine Week, when advocates for transparent government highlight the value of freedom-of-information laws.

— Several groups have been tapping on the door of Congress lately with a request for oversight into the often opaque, big-money world of college sports.

But the door seems shut tight.

Despite front-page news of scandals, including the 14-year academic fraud case at UNC-Chapel Hill, there are no plans for hearings on Capitol Hill. And there’s no powerful group lobbying Congress to pay attention.

Journalism groups have asked for changes in a federal privacy law, which universities across the country have used to block many types of education records from the public. These include even general information about what classes attract large numbers of student-athletes and who teaches them.

The Drake Group, an association of professors, has published articles seeking broad reforms in line with its mission, “to defend academic integrity in higher education from the corrosive aspects of commercialized college sports.”

“It’s like pushing a wet noodle,” said Drake member Frank Splitt, a retired electrical engineering professor, who has pressed lawmakers and published numerous articles on the need for college sports reform. “Nobody’s responding in Congress.”

The group wants lawmakers to conduct hearings into whether college sports deserve its tax-exempt status, and to amend the privacy law to make more information about student-athletes public, without identifying them, to help expose and discourage misconduct.

“Disclosure is not about athlete behavior. It’s about institutional behavior,” said David Ridpath, a former athletics compliance officer at Marshall University and Drake Group president-elect.

Ridpath said his group doesn’t formally lobby Congress, but has expressed concerns about the law and the tax-exempt status of schools with big athletic programs. He was hopeful Congress would wade into the issues.

Reasons to withhold

At Chapel Hill, one of the worst-ever academic scandals at an American university quietly placed hundreds of students – many of them athletes – in lecture-style classes that never met, and only required of them a term paper at the end.

It happened within the African studies department and may have continued unchecked for more than a decade.

The fraud began to unravel in August 2011, when The News & Observer obtained the transcript of a football star showing a B-plus in an upper-level class before he had even begun his first full semester as a freshman. Since then, university officials have acknowledged that there have been more than 200 bogus classes in the department.

The State Bureau of Investigation is looking into the conduct of two former department employees. The NCAA has been monitoring the scandal as well. Its president, Mark Emmert, recently said that he was unsure whether the UNC problem was an athletic scandal that fell under its jurisdiction because non-athletes were also enrolled in the classes.

Publicly disclosing what classes athletes were taking and what grades they were receiving without identifying the athletes by name, would have shown the popularity of the sham classes. But UNC officials in particular, and universities in general, have resisted providing such information, citing a little understood, 39-year-old federal law that keeps students’ educational records private.

“There is not a culture of transparency,” said James Sears Bryant, an attorney who was involved in a campus privacy issue related to sexual assault complaints at Oklahoma State University

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) of 1974 was intended to protect student privacy, primarily grades. But educational institutions have used it to keep other records secret – including disciplinary actions after sexual assault reports, parking tickets that would show what kind of cars student-athletes are driving, and other non-educational information.

Sometimes even police and state officials have been kept in the dark, which is what happened at Oklahoma State. Bryant said school officials mistakenly told reporters that the law prevented them from reporting sexual assault complaints to the police.

“The overuse of FERPA, in ways that the sponsors never intended, to conceal information that’s just inconvenient or embarrassing, is really an epidemic,” said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, a journalism advocacy group that is not allowed to lobby.

LoMonte said Congress should overhaul the privacy law and make clear that only “core academic and disciplinary records” are protected. And with the penalty for violating FERPA – withdrawal of federal funds – so extreme, schools overreact for fear of being put out of business, he said.

Higher education lawyers say the law doesn’t need to be fixed.

“Only rarely does it restrict us from communicating about our students when we need to do so, and hardly ever does it compel communication about our students,” Steven McDonald, general counsel at the Rhode Island School of Design, wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education. “It gives us considerable discretion to do what we, in our own best judgment, think should be done.”

Ada Meloy, general counsel for the American Council on Education, said universities are very careful in complying with FERPA.

Quiet on the Hill

On Capitol Hill, questions about the privacy law recently produced mostly quizzical looks.

North Carolina’s two senators, Democrat Kay Hagan and Republican Richard Burr, declined to comment. So did Rep. Virginia Foxx, a Banner Elk Republican who chairs the higher education subcommittee of the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

Foxx spokeswoman Ericka Perryman said the congresswoman believes the investigations, along with continued media scrutiny, would ensure that the university’s courses would be “appropriately rigorous and well-administered.”

Alexandra Sollberger, a spokeswoman for the House education panel, said that it would continue to monitor the application of FERPA, but the issue was not on its immediate agenda.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., a former member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and a former state attorney general, said that “a new look may be worth doing” because he hears from school administrators, parents and others that they’re troubled about the law.

Rep. David Price, a Chapel Hill Democrat and a former Duke University professor whose district includes UNC-CH, said he had not heard calls for changes in the law or for Congress to otherwise get involved in efforts to reform college sports. But asked about the scandal in an interview last fall, Price said, “I think this situation has reached the point where we need to ask ourselves, is there a federal legislative approach that could be helpful?”

Interpretations of FERPA continue to vary. The University of Kentucky refused a request by the school newspaper’s editor for correspondence between the university and its athletics staff, and between the university and the NCAA about the athletic status of freshman basketball player Nerlens Noel. The NCAA later ruled that Noel was eligible.

The state attorney general’s office asked for the same information, but was turned down, as well. Nonetheless, the office ruled in December that the university was right to deny the newspaper the material.

The attorney general’s office said that since the school also barred the state’s highest law enforcement office from seeing the information, “We rely on the university’s interpretation and application of the federal law, and its professed appreciation for the value of transparency, to ensure that public records are not improperly withheld in the name of student privacy.”

Kane: 919-829-4861

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