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Student-athletes and privacy laws

posted by Sports, Media & Society
Tuesday, March 5, 2013 at 10:38pm EST

Marie Hardin, associate director of the Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State University, takes a look at the interaction of sports coverage and U.S. culture.

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Most sports reporters likely will never be confused for seasoned lawyers, but a new research paper suggests journalists might have to become better acquainted with the law.

Sada Reed, a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina, examined legal cases and law review articles regarding the privacy of collegiate student-athletes. This past weekend Reed told a gathering of scholars at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication’s Southeast Colloquium that a paucity of cases and articles exist on this issue. Why is this a cause for concern? While state and federal governments are creating laws to protect the privacy of students, some schools might attempt to use the laws to deny information requests.

One of these tricky laws is the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which restricts the information colleges can share about students. If a school is found to run afoul of the act, it can lose its federal funding. Interpretations of the act have led to legal challenges. For example, a University of Maryland basketball player violated NCAA rules regarding the payment of parking tickets in the 1990s. The university’s student newspaper, The Diamondback, requested access to the parking tickets; the university denied the request citing FERPA. After a court battle, The Diamondback won the case because parking tickets were not considered part of students’ educational records.

Reed, who worked as a sports editor and reporter before beginning her doctoral studies, also discussed the rights of student-athletes, especially when it comes to surveillance of their activities. She told the audience that courts have ruled “student-athletes have a diminished expectation of privacy.” This is likely because of their quasi-celebrity nature of student-athletes. The diminished expectation decision has big implications for things such as drug testing and potentially down the line allowing states to make compelling cases for “preventing specific online activities” for student-athletes.

-- Steve Bien-Aimé

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