Changing Sunshine laws for athletics

Photo courtesy of Maura Currie

In 1976, the U.S. government passed the “Government in the Sunshine Act.” It’s one of many Freedom of Information Acts in this country, but its specific purpose is to make most meetings and records (as well as other official actions) of government agencies open to the public. If you know anything about or know anyone involved in journalism, you know that so-called “Sunshine Laws” are a sort of gospel in the field; anyone with questions about the activities of a governmental body — and yes, that catchall includes public universities — can use Sunshine Laws to enforce transparency.

Part of the Sunshine Law toolkit in Georgia are documents called Open Records Requests (ORRs), which are exactly what they sound like in that they allow reporters to request certain records from state agencies. As the state law reads currently, agencies have three days from receipt of the request to either produce the requested documents or provide a reasonable timeline for when the documents will actually be received.

Senate Bill 323, which is currently awaiting Governor Deal’s attention, would create an exception to this rule that hits particularly close to home for Tech students.

The main body of the bill alters the law by allowing certain projects to withhold documents from the public until a binding commitment to build it is issued by the Department of Economic Development. This, while troubling and problematic to me, is pretty obviously not the exception that screams “TECH STUDENTS SHOULD HEAR ABOUT THIS.”

The exception to which I’m referring takes the form of an amendment to SB 323 which was introduced by State Rep. Earl Ehrhart, pertaining specifically to universities’ athletic departments. Should this legislation pass, athletic departments would have 90 days to respond to an ORR.

I don’t pretend to know a great deal about how athletic departments operate, nor do I pretend in any capacity to be a “real” journalist who works with ORRs constantly. As a news junkie who has long appreciated the value of investigative journalism, however, I have to say that this rubs me the wrong way in both sentiment and execution.

The arguments for this legislation are a strange amalgamation of claims that our athletic departments are at a disadvantage in recruiting because we enforce a tight timetable on ORRs; Rep. Erhart, for example, noted in debate that “[this] just allows us to play on the same field as Alabama and everybody else” insofar as ORRs slowing down the recruiting process.

After consulting with the Technique’s Harsha Sridhar, my Sports Editor colleague, I’ve concluded that this is just patently untrue. Recruitment reporters seldom use ORRs, so to say — as Rep. Ehrhart has — that “at that recruiting time of year [administrations] get absolutely inundated with people wanting to have that recruiting information” without the capacity to handle them is misguided at best. Most information about who is considering which schools can be gleaned from coaches and students themselves by any curious party.

The comparison to Alabama’s system is furthermore faulty since top rivals to Georgia teams operate in states with similarly stringent turnarounds. South Carolina requires a response within 15 days and Tennessee and Mississippi (among others) require one in 10, so while Alabama’s vague guidelines are indeed more lenient they are the exception and not the rule.

In addition, this amendment applies to all intercollegiate athletic documents, including potentially-tricky information like contracts and NCAA complaints. If the problem were really in recruitment documents, this language would not be in the legislation. In a shocking turn of events, it might even have been debated over the course of days and
included in more relevant legislation instead of breezing through the Senate as a midnight amendment.

Barring the press from having access to public information in a timely manner is an effective castration. ORRs in sports are meant to be used to discover anything from violations of NCAA policy to exactly where student and taxpayer money is going. Three months is more than enough time for changes to be made in contract language and similar documents, should the need arise to obfuscate wrongdoing; a matter of great interest can, in three months, fall to the bottom of the stack and no longer be relevant.

Anyone can complete an ORR and pay the fees and send it off and wait, but the average Joe never will. Those Joes can either live in willful ignorance or turn to investigative reporting with the questions ORRs are designed to answer. The latter’s inability to do its job is only an open invitation for the former to take hold.

Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle said, after voting on the amendment finished in the Senate, that he hopes this will bring a national championship to the state of Georgia.

Don’t get me wrong: I would love, with all of my heart, to see that happen. I would love even more for that Georgia school to be our very own institution, obviously, but this bill will not get us any closer to that starry-eyed daydream.

This legislation is not about improving Georgia’s athletic programs. This is, plain and simple, about restricting the public’s access to documents which are rightfully theirs to review. I earnestly do not know if this was a misguided attempt at helping athletic depart-
ments keep on top of things, or if it was designed to offer more nefarious protections.
In a month that was dominated by the wild escapades of the Georgia Legislature, I wish there was more room for discussion of SB 323.

What I do know is this: I would far rather root for a team lackluster in performance but verifiably honest than winners who cower under the protection of a 90-day free-for all.