College Football: Florida State cheating update

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 21, 2009

Associated Press
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. ó A top official at the NCAA said a court ruling Thursday that documents dealing with cheating at Florida State 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.
David Berst, the NCAA’s vice president for Division I, said few witnesses other than school officials and employees would be willing to tell what they know about cheating, whether in recruiting, academics or other areas, without the promise of confidentiality.
“We could see copycat efforts in other states,” Berst said. “Yes, I believe that would rip the heart out of the NCAA.”
His comments from the witness stand came soon after Circuit Judge John Cooper rejected the NCAA’s claim that the documents in the Florida State case are not public.
The Associated Press and other media outlets had sued to get the records on the college athletics governing body’s plan to strip coaches and athletes of wins in 10 sports.
That includes football coach Bobby Bowden, who could lose 14 victories. Bowden’s chances of overtaking Penn State’s Joe Paterno as major college football’s winningest coach would dim if the NCAA rejects an appeal of that penalty. Paterno has 383 victories ó one more than Bowden.
Florida law says records are public if they are “received” by a state agency. The NCAA claimed the Florida State documents were not because the school never physically possessed the documents in paper or electronic form.
Instead, the NCAA posted them on a secure read-only Web site that could be accessed by the law firm Florida State had hired for its appeal. School officials also could have gone to NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis to take a look at the documents.
Cooper rejected the argument.
After Berst’s testimony, he rejected the NCAA’s claim that even if the documents are public records they should not be released because that would violate free association, contract and interstate commerce rights under the U.S. Constitution.
The judge also found that making the documents public would violate neither state nor federal laws guarding the confidentially of student academic records. He made that ruling after privately reading copies of two documents being sought that had student names blacked out.
Media lawyer Carol Jean LoCicero in arguing to obtain the Florida State records cited a 1990 appellate court ruling that St. Petersburg and the Chicago White Sox violated the public records law through a scheme to hide documents on the team’s possible move to Florida. The papers were sent to a local law firm where they could be viewed by city officials and attorneys.
That was little different from what the NCAA and Florida State did, LoCicero said.
“Everything was done except touch a piece of paper,” she said. “You don’t have to touch a piece of paper to receive a document.”
Cooper agreed, ruling that viewing the NCAA documents on a computer screen was the same as receiving them.