Court Rules Against NCAA in Florida State Public Records Case
NCAA documents in an infractions case against Florida State University are public records under state law, a Leon County circuit judge ruled Thursday.
NCAA vice president David Berst said from the witness stand in Tallahassee, Fla., the ruling that documents dealing with cheating at FSU are public records sets a precedent that will "rip the heart out of the NCAA" and its efforts to ensure competition is fair and equal.
Berst, a former 25-year head of NCAA enforcement, also said if the records were made public, it could nix FSU's ongoing appeal in the cheating scandal. "Possibly you would have to withdraw the usual due process opportunity for such an institution," Berst said.
Nearly 30 Florida media organizations had sued to get the records on the NCAA's plan to strip coaches and athletes of wins in 10 sports. That includes football coach Bobby Bowden, who would lose 14 victories, all but ending his chances of overtaking Penn State's Joe Paterno as major college football's winningest coach. Paterno has 383 victories -- one more than Bowden.
The records, however, have not been released yet.
A final ruling is pending Friday as Circuit Judge John Cooper has to consider still undecided issues including delaying release of the documents through an almost-certain appeal. Cooper also rejected the NCAA's arguments against release on constitutional grounds.
Berst also testified that granting confidentiality to witnesses in its investigations was essential and applying one set of rules for FSU, or public Florida member universities, would create an unfair situation.
The state media viewed it as "W" in that column.
Mike Smith, vice president of news and production at WCTV in Tallahassee, told FanHouse that "it's not complicated. It is common sense. I am happy the court ruled that the NCAA is not a special case."
"This is an important victory for Floridians in accessing government," Bob Gabordi, executive editor of the Tallahassee Democrat, one of the plaintiffs in the case, said on the newspaper's website. "This case showed the NCAA -- the supposed guardian of fairness in college sports -- has been behaving this way for a long time. Moving forward, it needs to re-examine how it does business, at least in Florida."
FSU officials in April appealed sanctions handed down by the NCAA earlier this year, vacating sports victories for teams that included players involved in an academic cheating scandal, among other penalties.
An NCAA response to the appeal was made available to FSU's outside attorneys exclusively on a secure Web site that did not allow the documents to be downloaded or printed and required those attorneys to sign confidentiality agreements.
Florida law says records are public if they are "received" by a state agency. The NCAA claimed the FSU documents were not because the school never physically possessed the documents in paper or electronic form.
While the NCAA eventually relented and allowed FSU to release NCAA documents via transcription, the organization still played hardball with Florida news organizations and said it was not subject to the state's public-records laws.
"That's not even hardball," Barbara A. Petersen, president of The First Amendment Foundation, a non-profit organization based in Tallahassee told FanHouse in June. "That's 'I am taking my ball and going home,' crybaby type of stuff. It is absurd. It's totally absurd. The issue of whether the NCAA and FSU violated the public records law has not been resolved."
That changed on Thursday, when Cooper ruled that viewing the NCAA documents on a computer screen was the same as receiving them -- making them public records under state law.
"The NCAA in its argument claimed that making the records public would cause a chilling effect on its ability to conduct investigations," Smith, of WCTV, said. "That has not been shown to be true here in Florida.
"I believe it showed a lack of respect by the NCAA to those it interviews in these type cases. If the only way we can get the truth is by promising not to tell anyone who told us the truth, then we have a much bigger issue than dealing with wrongdoing by some student athletes. When public dollars are involved, as they are here since FSU is a public university, the public simply has a right to know."