WASHINGTON -- 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.
There’s been no shortage of front-page scandals involving blue chip collegiate athletic programs, from the Penn State child sex abuse tragedy to the University of Miami booster-gate episode, where an avid fan lavished players with cash, women and other extra benefits.
But it’s a 16-year academic fraud case at the University of North Carolina that has crystallized concerns that a federal academic records privacy law has been used by schools as a tool to keep certain records from the public that critics believe should be kept open.
“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
Sometimes the law, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974, known as FERPA, has been used to keep even police and state officials in the dark.
At Oklahoma State, Bryant said school officials mistakenly told reporters that the law prevented them from reporting sexual assault complaints to the police.
FERPA was intended to protect student privacy, primarily grades. But educational institutions have used it to keep other kinds of 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.
North Carolina, one of the top public universities in the country that also boasts one of the premier college basketball programs, was the scene of one of the worst-ever academic scandals at an American university. The school, known as a “public Ivy,” quietly placed hundreds of students – many of them athletes – in lecture-style classes in the African studies department, which never met, and which only required of them a term paper at the end, which likely wasn’t read.
The fraud began to unravel in August 2011, when McClatchy’s The News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C, 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. A recent independent investigation found that the more than 450 unauthorized grade changes in the classes were spread among both students and student-athletes in a manner consistent with the class enrollments.
“This was not an athletic scandal,” former North Carolina Gov. Jim Martin, who headed the investigation, told the school’s board of trustees. “It was an academic scandal, which is worse.”
Journalism groups say even general information, such as what classes attract large numbers of student-athletes and who teaches them, is kept secret. 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.”
But there are no plans for hearings on Capitol Hill. And there’s no powerful group lobbying Congress to pay attention.