Florida State University is embarking on perhaps the darkest chapter in its athletics department’s history, which is significant for a program that has endured a massive cheating scandal, multiple Jameis Winston controversies, and whatever the heck that was that the Noles put on the football field in 2018.
Is this over-the-top outrage for the school creating a private booster organization to run its athletics department? Especially when a pair of other universities in the state already have the same arrangement?
Depends on whom you ask … and how much you value transparency.
If you’re the win-at-all-costs type who roots for your team regardless of how many criminals they place on the field or how many booster bucks flow into their pockets … I guess there’s no need to read any further.
But if you’re a taxpayer who cares about how your money is spent, or you’re simply a human being who believes sunlight and transparency are the best disinfectants, then FSU’s move to convert its athletics department into a private direct service organization (DSO), thus exempting it from state public records laws, should be extremely concerning.
The Sunshine State has a rich tradition of transparency and accountability in government, and FSU’s end-around on those values couldn’t be more obvious.
Yet, somehow, it seems none of the officials tasked with looking out for Floridians seem to be concerned.
For what it’s worth, FSU President John Thrasher told The Washington Post’s Will Hobson the restructuring had nothing to do with avoiding public records and more to do with streamlining fundraising and athletics/booster relations.
Thrasher said the Seminoles would continue to provide access to public records like emails, text messages, and financials — just as the University of Florida has done through its DSO.
But these schools will only provide full access to these records until the day they decide not to.
Hobson’s story detailed how the University of Central Florida used its DSO to avoid turning over George O’Leary‘s contract, which would have otherwise been a public record.
And similar setups have helped shield records from the public at the University of Georgia, Pittsburgh, and Penn State. (yes, that Penn State).
Ask yourself — the next time a Joe Paterno-type of scandal comes up or a Jameis Winston kind of controversy rocks an athletics program — do you want mandatory transparency or optional transparency?
Ask yourself — do we want the relationship between boosters and administrators/coaches to be even closer and even more secretive? FSU was already using booster relationships to shield some public records related to construction of public facilities.
And former UCF Athletics Director Keith Tribble even admitted — during a deposition related to the death of football player Erick Plancher — the DSO allowed the athletics department to conduct business “without having it, you know, be public.”
The university successfully argued, in that case, the DSO, while operating as a private entity, should still enjoy the benefits of a public one, as a $10 million wrongful death judgment to Plancher’s family was reduced to just $200,000, the maximum a plaintiff can win against a public entity in Florida.
Regardless, “all the other teams are doing it” is not a sufficient reason to exempt an organization from Florida laws.
Imitation is not a form of flattery here — its an embarrassing sort of shadiness that even the win-at-all-cost types should recognize as a giant risk with no tangible benefit to your teams.
Florida State doesn’t want to have to answer to the public, and the program — which collected more than $10 million last year from student fees and university financial assistance — doesn’t want to be obligated to tell you how they’re spending it.
If you’re a ‘Noles fan defending your program this week, it may be worth reexamining your values.
The DSO loophole is not a good thing for Florida, and it’s ultimately one that lawmakers should reexamine, too. Of course, given their typically reliable loyalty to their alma maters, none of us should hold our breath.