NCAA V. the Associated Press: Open Records Ruling May Affect Future Athletic Department Activities

Article excerpt

Although May 24, 2010, was like most spring days in Florida-pleasantly mild and partly sunny-the Florida Supreme Court's actions that day undoubtedly made the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and its members feel as if they were trapped in the "dog days of summer": stifling hot and humid. With one decision, the landscape of college sport had been altered, although most fans and intercollegiate athletic administrators are still not aware of the implications of the court's decision for the future forecast.

The court's refusal to hear an appeal of a Leon County (FL) circuit court's order, in which it cited The Florida Public Records Law (Fla. Stat. sec. 119) and compelled the NCAA to disclose documents associated with its investigation of an academic scandal at Florida State University (FSU), stands to greatly impact the future operation of the NCAA and its member athletic departments (NCAA v. The Associated Press, 2010). As with many heat waves, the conditions necessary for this one began to build gradually, as far back as 2007.

Background

In March 2007, on the campus of Florida State University (FSU), allegations surfaced that three former academic support services staff members had provided "improper" academic assistance to at least 61 FSU athletes (Landman, 2009). During its subsequent investigation, the NCAA uncovered evidence that from Fall 2006 through Summer 2007, at least 25 FSU football players received improper help from staffers in a music-history course. The NCAA determined that FSU's athletic-academic support staff had provided athletes with answers to an online test (i.e. they cheated) and/or typed course papers for them (National Collegiate Athletic Association, 2010).

The NCAA's investigation and infractions report was initially released in March 2009. Among the levied penalties outlined in the NCAA Committee on Infractions report was vacating all football victories during the 2006-2007 seasons (National Collegiate Athletic Association, 2010). As a result, former FSU football coach Bobby Bowden was stripped of 14 victories, dashing his hopes of ever surpassing the all-time wins total of Penn State's Joe Paterno. Although Florida State immediately appealed the NCAA's penalties, in January 2010 the NCAA upheld its decision (Carter, 2010).

Unbeknownst to the general public, during NCAA investigations and appeals, athletic departments under investigation, as well as any private-party representatives, have traditionally been provided with copies of NCAA investigative documents (NCAA v. The Associated Press, 2009). Interestingly, in an effort to increase efficiency and decrease administrative costs, since 2007 the NCAA has gone "paperless," no longer delivering such documents to universities. Instead, the NCAA provides access to electronic copies of pertinent documents via a secure website (National Collegiate Athletic Association v. The Associated Press, 2009).

Due to Bowden's national visibility, the NCAA's investigation of FSU, as well as the NCAA Infraction Committee's report and the subsequent appeals process, garnered widespread attention. As a result, the Associated Press (AP) and many other news outlets requested access to as much information as possible, including copies of documents that Florida State University might possess. Granting such access was widely believed to be statutorily mandated under Florida's "sunshine" laws (Fla. Stat. § 119.01 (2011)). However, the NCAA initially denied the Associated Press' request, claiming that such records were either not public, or protected under the Federal Educational Right to Privacy Act (FERPA), 20 U.S.C.S. § 1232. In addition, the NCAA contended that Florida's "sunshine" law did not apply to documents accessed via a website, since no actual documents or emails were physically received by a state agency within the boundaries of the state of Florida (NCAA v. The Associated Press, 2009).

Legal Issues Presented in the Case

This case involved several questions of law, including: (a) How do documents become public records? …