UK withholds some information about student athletes

vhoneycutt@herald-leader.comJune 7, 2009 

Citing a federal law that protects student academic records, the University of Kentucky withheld information about student athletes in a variety of documents from a newspaper conducting a nationwide investigation.

Although the university redacted names and other information from dozens of documents given to The Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch, T. Lynn Williamson, UK's senior associate general counsel, said that UK prides itself on providing information to the public.

"We are a public institution, and the taxpayers have a right to know what's going on," Williamson said.

Still, UK must adhere to language in the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act that considers all records "that relate directly to the student and are maintained by the institution" to be confidential, he said.

UK provided The Dispatch with names of people who received complimentary football tickets from coaches, but refused to give the newspaper any information on the complimentary football tickets that student athletes give family and friends.

The Department of Education says that those records are public, according to The Dispatch.

Williamson told the Herald-Leader Thursday that he would review the Department of Education's position on the complimentary tickets distributed by athletes and said that if its policy calls for a different interpretation of the law, "we will change what we do."

"There are hundreds of rulings on these things, and you do your best interpretation," he said.

Williamson said that in deciding which records to release, UK not only looks to FERPA, but also to Kentucky open records laws.

The Dispatch sent public records requests to 119 universities to gauge their openness on football-related documents: passenger lists for travel to sporting events, complimentary tickets that athletes give to family and friends, athletes' summer employment and NCAA violations of all athletic programs.

Three schools — Eastern Michigan, Louisiana-Monroe and Utah State — censored no information and gave The Dispatch all of the football-related records. Other schools provided information to various degrees. But out of the four specific requests, the only information UK provided in full was the passenger lists for travel to away football games.

In withholding information, UK cited FERPA.

When providing documents about NCAA violations, UK routinely blacked out the names of students and some non-students.

The DOE says those NCAA violations records probably are private, but James L. Buckley, the former U.S. senator who crafted the student privacy law, disagreed, telling The Dispatch that the law was supposed to protect only grades and academic matters.

On another front, UK told the Ohio newspaper that it did not keep records of where athletes are working for the summer and how much they are paid.

At most universities, athletes are required to submit that information. The concern is that players often get summer jobs that have been offered by big-money donors and set up by coaches.

Department of Education officials are unclear about whether those summer job records are public or private under federal law, according to The Dispatch.

In a December 16, 2008, letter, Frank Butler, UK's official custodian of records, told The Dispatch that "most scholarship football players are enrolled in summer classes and do not take summer employment."

"However, if they should choose to get a summer job, it would be done so independently of the University. Accordingly, we have no records responsive to this request, " the letter said.

Williamson said Thursday that he would make another inquiry to the UK athletics department about summer job records.

Reach Valarie Honeycutt Spears at (859) 231-3409 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3409.

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