Editorials

How the NCAA is helping NC State (and other schools) hide from scrutiny

N.C. State University is facing the possibility of significant NCAA sanctions and the stain of an FBI investigation because of possible recruiting violations involving former coaches, an agent, and at least one former star player. News & Observer reporters and editors think the public deserves to know more about what happened at this public institution. We agree.

N.C. State officials, however, don’t appear to be on board with that notion. They’ve collaborated with the NCAA to conceal potentially damaging information behind a confidentiality agreement they say forbids school officials from releasing records — potentially including public records that the university supplied to the NCAA. It’s a sneaky way to hide bad behavior, and it’s a tactic other schools have used. On Wednesday, in a potentially far-reaching lawsuit, the N&O and other media asked a Wake County Superior Court to put a stop to it.

Here’s how it works:

Beginning in late 2017, reporters from the N&O and the Herald-Sun requested records from N.C. State regarding former men’s basketball coach Mark Gottfried and the recruitment of star freshman Dennis Smith. That recruitment was part of an FBI investigation that resulted in the arrest of 10 people, including sports agent Christian Dawkins, who allegedly contacted Gottfried and possibly two assistant coaches about Smith and another recruit, Brian Bowen. Among the records requested by the N&O’s Steve Wiseman and Dan Kane are communications from Gottfried and assistant coaches, including text messages and emails.

N.C. State has provided a small number of the records requested, but in a July 2019 email, NCSU told Kane that many documents were only accessible on a protected NCAA portal. Said Fred Hartman, NCSU director of university relations: “The university does not have the ability to print, download or copy these documents and is thus unable to provide that content at this time.”

Those documents, however, apparently include public records. Why was the school now unable to provide them? According to NCSU, school officials entered into a “non-disclosure agreement” involving records in the portal, even if those records came from the university. In an August 27 email, Kane told the NCAA that documents considered public under North Carolina law should be exempted from the NCAA’s non-disclosure agreement. NCSU acknowledged receiving the email later that day, but it has not responded since.

The N&O, along with the Herald-Sun, WRAL, ABC 11 in Raleigh and the New York Times, are asking the court to declare what N.C. State officials already should know: Public records are public records. They’re not subject to private confidentiality agreements. They’re not something schools should be able to hide, regardless of whether they might lead to embarrassment or reporters digging even deeper. N.C. State might answer to the NCAA as a member institution, but it first should answer to a public that deserves to know how a men’s basketball program veered from the rules and how an athletic department allowed it to happen. Instead, we’re getting a shell game with public records. The court should put a stop to it.

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