On Tuesday morning, Barbara Petersen — president of the First Amendment Foundation, a Florida nonprofit that advocates for open government — got a text message from a friend with a link to a news story about Florida State athletics. In the text message, Petersen said, her like-minded friend added her reaction to the story with a three-word phrase that began with the words “What the” and ended with an expletive.
The story was about Florida State creating a private nonprofit organization to oversee its athletic department, a move that will effectively shield athletic officials at one of Florida’s flagship public universities from having to comply with public records law. Once the transition is complete later this year, Florida State athletics officials — just like their colleagues at Florida and Central Florida, who made similar structural changes years ago — will no longer be required by law to turn over internal financial documents, emails, text messages and other records to inquiring journalists and citizens.
To Petersen and other advocates for government transparency, the announcement prompted concerns Florida State athletics officials are trying to avoid the public scrutiny and oversight that usually comes with working at a public university.
“It’s outrageous,” Petersen said. “It really doesn’t make much sense to me, except that they want to do everything secretly.”
In a phone interview Wednesday, Florida State President John Thrasher said secrecy was not a motivation for the restructuring. Thrasher pledged that Florida State athletics officials will continue to fulfill records requests as if nothing has changed, even after state public records law no longer applies to them.
“The idea has never been to be not transparent. The athletic department’s going to be very transparent,” Thrasher said. “Nothing’s going to change in that regard as long as I’m here. I guarantee it.”
The reason for the restructuring, according to Thrasher, was due to prior situations he declined to discuss in detail in which Seminole Boosters — a private nonprofit independent of the university — wasn’t “quite on the same page” as the athletic department, he said.
Under the new setup, the president of Seminole Boosters will report to the athletic director, who will be the chief executive of the new Florida State University Athletics Association.
“Obviously the boosters are there to raise money and provide a boost to the athletic department,” Thrasher said. “I think this alignment will achieve that in a better way down the road.”
Petersen remains skeptical.
“When you take a college program, a state university program, and privatize it, there’s only one reason you’re going to do that, and that’s to hide things. Why else would you do it?” she said. “There’s no advantage to it other than avoiding oversight and accountability.”
Petersen’s skepticism is informed, in part, by how officials in athletic departments at public universities across the country over the years have deployed an array of strategies that transparency advocates view as attempts to avoid scrutiny.
In Georgia, a law passed in 2016 gave university athletic departments up to 90 days to respond to records requests, up from the previous three-day limit. Although Georgia football coach Kirby Smart has denied any involvement with the effort to get the legislation passed, some have taken to calling it “Kirby’s Law.”
In Pennsylvania, Penn State and Pitt have taken advantage of a quirk in that state’s laws that defines those schools as “state-related,” permitting them to avoid open records requirements, refusing to release even basic financial information such as budgets, revenue figures and coach contracts.
And at public universities in other states, some athletic directors and coaches avoid sending emails or text messages, reducing the likelihood their words will be reviewed later by journalists. During the controversy at Ohio State last year over allegations officials ignored domestic violence accusations lodged against an assistant football coach, the phones of both former coach Urban Meyer and Athletic Director Gene Smith were missing text messages, according to a university investigation and a Wall Street Journal story, because the men deleted the messages. Meyer said a university technology support employee changed his phone’s settings to delete old messages, while Smith habitually deletes messages shortly after sending or receiving them, according to the Journal story.
In Florida, where the open records law is particularly expansive, the state government effectively has left a loophole for public universities by allowing them to create independent “direct support organizations” to oversee athletic departments. Florida’s athletic department has operated as a direct support organization since 1929, according to athletics spokesman Steve McClain.
Despite being exempt from the state’s open records law, Florida athletics routinely releases records when requested, usually with a boilerplate explanation that, even though the department doesn’t have to release any records, “we generally will provide nonconfidential records … as an accommodation to the public.”
“Out of every 100 records requests . . . there might be two or three we might consider confidential, a private personal employee information or something in a personnel file,” McClain said. “It’s pretty rare that we don’t provide what is requested.”
Over at UCF, however, the athletic department sometimes has taken a different stance. From 2009 until 2015, when George O’Leary was head football coach, UCF declined to release his contract, citing the fact that state public records law doesn’t apply to direct support organizations.
In 2010, former UCF athletic director Keith Tribble was asked, during a deposition, if there were any advantages to running an athletic department that was part of a direct support organization.
“Sure,” said Tribble, who then cited the “flexibility” to conduct athletic department business, “without having it, you know, be public.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Ohio State Athletic Director Gene Smith does not use email. Smith does use email, according a university spokesman.