In a unanimous decision Tuesday after nearly a year of legal wrangling, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled the university had acted correctly in most cases of shielding records the broadcast giant requested last year in the wake of the extra benefits scandal that rocked the Buckeye football program and led to the end of Jim Tressel's tenure as head coach.
In April 2011, ESPN asked for all correspondence to and from Tressel, director of athletics Gene Smith, University President Dr. E. Gordon Gee and compliance director Doug Archie that includes the keyword "Sarniak" during a period of March 15, 2007 to the present.
When that request and several others were denied, ESPN filed a lawsuit July 11.
Ted Sarniak is a businessman in Jeannette, Pa., who has mentored former Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor, one of the players involved in the NCAA scandal. Tressel forwarded to Sarniak emails he received from a tipster about a U.S. Attorney's investigation of tattoo parlor owner Ed Rife, who had become acquainted with Pryor and other players and was later found to have traded cash and services for Ohio State memorabilia and equipment. The coach did not tell his superiors or anyone in Archie's department of being notified of possible NCAA violations, constituting a major NCAA violation in and of itself and leading to Tressel's forced exit May 30, 2011.
Ohio State rejected ESPN's request on the grounds that public knowledge of Pryor's relationship with Sarniak would make it impossible to guarantee the player's privacy if the correspondence were released even in redacted form. That, the school claimed, would put it in jeopardy of violating the Federal Education Rights Protection Act (FERPA) that prohibits the release of students' educational records without consent. Schools in violation of FERPA can lose federal funding.
The court validated this claim, agreeing with Ohio State's assertion those messages qualify as education records and that they should be protected.
"It's a fairly broad interpretation and that's consistent with what the courts have held before, and it's also consistent with what's been Ohio State's interpretation," Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, who helped lead the university's defense, told BuckeyeSports.com.
Jim Lynch, a university spokesman, said in a statement Ohio State appreciates the clarity provided by the decision.
"Our student-athletes are treated the same way as all of our 64,000 students, and we take seriously our obligation to protect the confidentiality of all of our students' education records," Lynch said. "At the same time, the university also takes seriously its obligation to provide public information in accordance with Ohio law."
Not everything the school withheld was ruled safe, however, as the court found a handful of records should be released after the names of student-athletes, their parents and others involved are redacted to remove personally identifiable information.
These include an email chain between Tressel, an athletics department official in charge of compliance, attorneys and other officials scheduling a meeting. The court's decision also identifies two letters from the OSU athletics department to a player "concerning preferential treatment."
Additionally, the court found some records requested and not provided are protected by state attorney-client privilege.
"The university provided ESPN with thousands of pages of records during the course of our NCAA investigation, and as now affirmed by a unanimous court, it acted responsibly in responding to the many varied and broad public record requests it received," Lynch added.
Lynch told BuckeyeSports.com the NCAA had already reviewed all documents involved in the case.
The court also rejected ESPN's request for Ohio State to cover its legal fees in the case because the university complied with the majority of the records requests.
DeWine called that a significant development.
"That's a signal," DeWine told BuckeyeSports.com. "If they thought Ohio State had really been stonewalling them, I suspect they would have had them pay some attorney fees."
ESPN declined comment.