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Media Group Sues UNC

Oh boy.

A group of local media outlets including the News & Observer, WRAL, WTVD and The Daily Tar Heel have filed a lawsuit against UNC seeking the release of records related to the NCAA investigation into UNC football.

"There is evidence here of serious violations -- UNC players accepting benefits from agents and academic misconduct," said John Drescher, executive editor of The News & Observer. "UNC has said it wants to get to the bottom of these problems in its football program. The best way to do that is to release these records."

Among the records being sought by The N & O, are:

-- Phone numbers from bills of telephones issued to and used by Richard Baddour, the UNC-CH athletics director; Butch Davis, the UNC head football coach; and, Blake, the former assistant UNC-CH coach and chief recruiter who resigned under fire amid the probe.

-- Names, employment dates and salaries of all individuals employed as tutors and or mentors for UNC-CH athletes since January 2007, including any documents mentioning Jennifer Wiley, the former tutor at the center of the probe.

-- Any parking tickets issued by UNC-CH to 11 players.

-- Any documents or records of any investigation conducted by the university related to any misconduct by a UNC-CH football coach, any football players, any sports agents, any boosters and any academic tutors.

-- And the names of individuals and organizations that provided improper benefits to any UNC football players.

University officials have maintained that many of the records being sought are private, citing federal student privacy protection laws. The N & O and other plaintiffs believe these records are public under North Carolina law, which states that records, documents and other information generated by state agencies and institutions such as UNC-CH should be -- with limited exceptions -- made public.

First of all, I am not buying what Drescher is selling here. His statement comes off like all the media wants to do is help UNC "get to the bottom" of the issues facing the football program as though he has the best interest of UNC at heart. Not so much. This is the media digging into the story for their own purposes. There is no altruistic impulse here. The media outlets pursuing this litigation are chasing a story and more importantly trying to boost sales and ratings depending on the medium. In other words, they want to do their own investigation, draw their own conclusions then have the NCAA confirm it whenever that report comes down. Now, I fully understand this is how it works. I am not going to begrudge the media their pursuit of a story. I happen to have a philosophical disagreement with using the public records law in this manner but that is neither here or there. The media is exercising options completely within their rights so I cannot object too strongly to people essentially doing their job.

Having said that, I would probably have no objection at all if the ongoing NCAA investigation were finished and the report made public.  Now, I am less worried about what the records might reveal than maybe I should be. The main reason is I am fairly certain the NCAA has most, if not all of the information the media is asking for here. The only odd request which may not be on the NCAA's radar is the request to see parking tickets for 11 players. Why would the media want to see those? Because parking tickets likely include the make and model of the vehicle. That information could be proof of players driving expensive vehicles or include ownership information which could be traced to an agent, runner, possibly a booster. The concern with this item is the specificity. I doubt the media is taking a blind stab here. It is possible they know something and the parking tickets would corroborate it. As for the rest of it, I imagine the NCAA has seen all the relevant phone records, investigation materials, names of people providing improper benefits and academic support staff records. As I said, after the NCAA report comes, knock yourself out going after the records. I have made it clear I think the NCAA should be more transparent with how it decided penalties so having the details of the case to go with the findings would be very helpful, then not now while the case is still being considered.

The problem for UNC, assuming the NCAA already has most of this information, is primarily in the PR realm.  When the NCAA issues its final report, it will be a summary of items not a truckload of raw data. The information coming from the NCAA will be filtered and packaged with interpretation of what all the evidence means. That will not be the case with a raw data dump of various records. Such a large cache of information will result in varying parsings of what it all means. Context will not be considered and critics outside the media will cherry pick the most damning facts to fit their own memes. In short, the information in raw form could look worse than what the NCAA actually concludes of the same data. As for Drescher's point that UNC releasing the information is the "only way" to deal with the violations. Not so. By fully cooperating with the NCAA, which happens to be the authoritative body with jurisdiction over the violations, UNC is addressing the issue. Releasing the information directly into the public prior to the NCAA's final report just muddies the waters even more than they are presently.

So what happens now? No one knows for sure. UNC has been dragging their feet and stonewalling in response to these requests of this type throughout the investigation. The problem now is a lawsuit pins UNC into a corner. Holden Thorp can continue to cite privacy laws but it is difficult to shake the perception UNC is withholding information.  In that respect UNC simply looks bad for holding out. Chances are UNC is not going to win in court. FSU faced similar requests and ultimately was forced to give up the goods. The same is probably true here. UNC's only move left is to delay as long as possible and effect some kind of release of information on as much of their own terms as they can manage. It is also possible this leads to more negotiation which might be the whole reason the lawsuit was filed.

Whatever the case, all we can do now it wait and see how it shakes out which will undoubtedly be on a Thursday.