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Monday, August 28, 2023
Following MFIA Suit, West Point Athletics Arm Begins Releasing Records
The nonprofit entity that runs West Point’s athletics programs has begun releasing records it previously refused to make public to a journalist represented by the Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic (MFIA) at Yale Law School. The disclosure of these documents follows a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit filed by the clinic on behalf of sports journalist Daniel Libit. Reporting for the online news service Sportico, Libit has been trying to understand the relationship between U.S. service academies and intercollegiate sports.
Libit requested financial and contractual records concerning West Point’s Division I sports from the Army West Point Athletics Association (AWPAA) last year. AWPAA responded that it was not subject to FOIA, the law that provides the public the right to request access to records from any federal agency. MFIA filed suit in February. The clinic alleged that as a government-controlled corporation that exists exclusively to serve West Point, the athletics association should be considered a federal agency under the open records law. By failing to release the documents Libit sought, MFIA argued, the association violated the statute.
In June, in an effort to avoid the discovery process and a possible trial, the athletics association agreed to a court order to produce the records under FOIA. The AWPAA also agreed to respond to future records requests by any member of the public as if it were subject to FOIA. However, the association continues to maintain, as a legal matter, that it operates outside the statute’s scope and reserves the right to seek a judicial determination later about its status as a FOIA agency.
“Even if you don’t care about the business of Army athletics, there’s a larger public interest in pushing back against this public records shell game that has proliferated well beyond college athletics. I’m grateful that, in taking up my case, the MFIA Clinic appreciated both the specific and deeper issues at play in this dispute.”
— Journalist Daniel Libit
“It is unfortunate that a lawsuit was required to get information FOIA requires to be made public,” said Jennifer Borg, a Clinical Lecturer in Law at the clinic. “But the decision by West Point to move its athletics program to a nonprofit is part of a growing trend of government agencies creating nonprofits and outsourcing government functions in an effort to avoid public scrutiny. The outcome here is important, because public access to government information is essential for democracy to function.”
West Point established the Army West Point Athletics Association in 2015 as a way to stay competitive in the $14 billion college sports industry. Spinning off a federally chartered nonprofit enabled West Point to avoid federal financial restrictions and take in revenue, lure athletes, and pay coaches more competitively, according to the clinic. By 2018, West Point had migrated personnel management, contracts, sponsorships and oversight of athletics facilities to AWPAA.
As Libit has written, the setup has allowed the sports program to keep its operations and financial matters out of the public eye. Records kept from public view include potentially lucrative agreements such as coaches’ employment contracts, multimedia and apparel deals, and the arrangement between the taxpayer-funded service academy and its deputized athletics association. That information is only now starting to be released.
“Our institutions of higher learning have, for decades, been offshoring public records to quasi-private nonprofits, effectively taking for granted that they can play this game with impunity. So it is that the athletic departments of our country’s federally funded military academies have become even more inscrutable than those of private universities,” Libit said. “That’s a problem. Even if you don’t care about the business of Army athletics, there’s a larger public interest in pushing back against this public records shell game that has proliferated well beyond college athletics. I’m grateful that, in taking up my case, the MFIA Clinic appreciated both the specific and deeper issues at play in this dispute.”
MFIA students Henry Ishtani ’23, Julia Peoples ’24 and Samantha Stroman ’23 worked on the case.
The Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic at Yale Law School is a law student clinic dedicated to increasing government transparency, defending the essential work of news gatherers, and protecting freedom of expression by providing pro bono legal services, pursuing impact litigation and developing policy initiatives.