Illinois’ Simon Cvijanovic Has Asked the Athletics Gorilla to Dance, And Needs to Think About His Records

Illinois football lineman Simon Cvijanovic has moxie. And courage. By speaking publicly about Illini head coach Tim Beckman’s habit of forcing players to play hurt (and other charges), Cvijanovic has challenged both college football’s Omerta code and its ‘Tough Guys Play Hurt’ ethic.

But Cvijanovic should understand that, in many respects, he has just asked the gorilla to dance — the gorilla which is the business of big-time college sports at Illinois — and that gorilla may just make Cvijanovic dance more, or in different ways, than Cvijanovic might anticipate.  And he should not be deluded into thinking that AD Mike Thomas’ investigation by an outside lawyer will — necessarily — be independent, thorough, or accurate. It might be, but it might not be.

A player in Cvijanovic’s position needs to think through his next steps. He needs to weigh whether he wants to partially or completely revoke his FERPA and HIPAA releases. The FERPA release, which he signed as a part of the deceptively titled ‘Student-Athlete Statement’ (which is much more than just a ‘statement’; it’s a breathtakingly broad surrender to the school of some player fundamental privacy and other rights), gives anyone within the athletic department access to his student records, including academic records. (As I’ve previously indicated, there are no good reasons why any athletic department should have access to a player’s academic records, and the entire ‘Academic Glamour Factory’ which the NCAA and schools have constructed around every player would crumble if all players just refused to execute that FERPA waiver.)

In making any decisions about revoking his FERPA waiver, though, any player should consider how first to use the FERPA statute to protect himself. And he might want to recall the events at Rutgers which led to basketball coach Mike Rice’s firing — which included the fact that all videos of team practices had been requested and produced to a former coach, as a part of a lawsuit that coach had filed against Rutgers. Those videos confirmed Rice’s physically abusive behavior toward players, just as practice videos at Illinois might help support Cvijanovic’s claims.

Cvijanovic, it appears, doesn’t have the benefit of some similar such simultaneous lawsuit against Illinois which might get him access to probative practice videotapes But he has a credible argument that the Illini practice videos are actually his ‘student records’ under FERPA. This theory has not been, as far as I can tell, explicitly tested, but is ironically supported by the fact that, for the last twenty years, almost all big-time athletic departments have habitually denied many FOIA and other requests for information by claiming an extremely broad definition of ‘student records’ under FERPA — the kind of broad interpretation which would also readily  support any player claim that he should be given access to all practice videos.  And it would be more than entertaining to force the Illinois athletic department to contend that records (videos) concerning college athletic activities are not records concerning students.

Any player concerned about his injuries should initiate a FERPA and HIPAA request for his student records and medical records, to check the file for accuracy. Does it include all athletic-related documents? Do the medical records contain all notes from all trainer consultations, however frequent or minute?  And the sooner these requests are made, the more clearly the school or staff are prevented from adding or removing documents as things heat up. The student record requests, under both FERPA and HIPAA, also should include access to all emails which pertain to the player — whether generated by academic staff, coaches, trainers, athletic department personnel, or other school employees.  Obviously, emails by Beckman or his staff might be the most probative — though Beckman has probably followed the lead of other big-time coaches, like Rich Rodriguez, when he was at Michigan, who refused to even have a university email account (!)

There are other issues, too complex to describe here, which involve judgment calls as to whether the player wants to partially or completely limit the scope of his existing FERPA waiver and HIPAA authorizations given to the school. At a minimum, any player should understand the waivers which he signed within the ‘Student-Athlete-Statement’ are easily interpreted (believe it or not) to give those waivers continuing effect — forever. 

See this language from the introduction to the SAS:

Effective Date: This NCAA Division I Student-Athlete Statement/Drug-Testing Consent form shall be in effect from the date this document is signed and shall remain in effect until a subsequent Division I Student-Athlete Statement/Drug-Testing Consent form is executed.”

Any player probably wants to specifically revoke those waivers at the time he graduates or departs from the school.

About brewonsouthu

lawyer, with interest in college sports and NCAA oversight and decisions, and sports generally.
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