UF, FSU athletic departments need to obey freaking law | Commentary

It’s sad that this column has to be written.

It’s disheartening when those who are supposed to set the example undermine the very principles they are supposed to uphold.

It’s unfathomable that school presidents and administrators at the University of Florida and Florida State University must be convinced of one our nation’s most fundamental credos — obey the law.

I’m talking about our state’s “Sunshine Law” — on the books for more than half-a-century as a way to ensure public access to the records of our government-funded agencies. It should be pretty clear to everyone that the University of Florida, Florida State, UCF, etc. are funded by taxpayer dollars and therefore should be subject to the Sunshine Law.

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Disappointingly, UF and FSU in recent months have acted as if the law doesn’t apply to their athletic departments.

Let’s start with the Gators, who are under NCAA investigation for allegations of recruiting violations in regard to a ridiculously exorbitant Name, Image and Likeness deal worth $13.8 million that was offered to California high school quarterback Jaden Rashada last year. The deal ultimately and predictably fell through because the Gator Collective — a third-party entity that raises money from athletic donors to fund NIL deals for athletes — orchestrated the contract but reneged on the financial terms. Consequently, Rashada ended up at Arizona State.

As if the Gators didn’t look dumb enough for getting mixed up in the biggest fiasco since NIL became legal, they have since tried to hide that they are being investigated by the NCAA. UF initially refused public-records requests from the Tampa Bay Times and Associated Press, whose reporters asked the university to turn over the NCAA’s notification-of-allegations letter sent to school president Ben Sasse.

According to Times reporter Matt Baker, UF originally claimed the NCAA letter was exempt from the Sunshine Law but finally acquiesced and turned over the letter — but only after the Times got its lawyers involved.

“I feel very strongly about this stuff,” Baker told me. “Not acknowledging open records and using exemptions that don’t apply, that’s how shenanigans happen.”

Likewise, leaders at Florida State have been trying (successfully) to circumvent the Sunshine Law by failing to comply with public-records requests from reporters at Sportico — a digital platform that covers sports business.

Sportico reported in August that FSU had contacted JPMorgan “to explore the possibility of raising institutional capital to fund its athletic ambitions. Though private equity funds are buying into major U.S. pro leagues of all sorts, they have yet to find a way into college sports at the team level. Anything Florida State does in that realm would be nationwide news and closely watched by schools and investors across the country.”

Doesn’t this sound like something Florida State fans, who are being hit with massive season-ticket increases to help pay for the $265 million in stadium upgrades, has a right know?

Well, for nearly six months, Sportico has been making public-records requests to FSU, asking the school for any documentation or written communication related to the school’s talks to raise private equity money through JPMorgan Chase to fund its athletics department. And for nearly six months, Sportico has been stonewalled.

Sportico reporter Eben Novy-Williams wrote an excellent column recently underneath the headline: “Florida State Demands ‘Sunshine’ While Keeping Public In The Dark.” The column essentially points out the hypocrisy of FSU, which is suing the ACC and accusing the conference of not being transparent with some of its documents (like the ACC’s controversial grant-of-rights media deal). And yet the Seminoles themselves aren’t even complying with their own state law regarding transparency.

“They are touting all of this stuff about transparency in their lawsuit against the ACC,” Novy-Williams told me this week. “They are telling everyone that the ACC is withholding public records from the university and from the people of Florida. Transparency has sort of become their central theme in the lawsuit. If Florida State cares so much about transparency then what about that public records request [Politico] submitted six months ago? [FSU’s rhetoric] sounds like a bunch of doublespeak.”

Added Novy-Williams: “There’s public money that is flowing from the citizens of Florida into the public universities, including Florida State. The people of the state have a right to know what’s happening with that money.”

It’s a travesty that the athletic departments at Florida State, Florida and UCF have somehow, someway been allowed to establish themselves as separate non-profit direct-support organizations (DSO), which effectively shields them from the Sunshine Law. The fact that these athletic departments are considered non-profit is, of course, laughable, but, even so, they should still be subject to the Sunshine Law.

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Public money is pouring into these athletic departments in the form of student fees, fan and booster donations and, yes, UCF just received nearly $90 million in funding from the Orange County Tourist Development Tax. If that doesn’t make UCF’s athletic department a public entity, then I don’t know what does.

Kudos to Sportico, the Tampa Bay Times and all of the other media outlets and investigative reporters out there who are fighting the good fight to hold our government officials and public institutions accountable. And, believe me, it’s getting tougher and tougher to do with media companies shrinking while defiant, emboldened politicians are essentially saying, “I don’t give a damn what the law says. I’m above the law!”

Sadly, our public universities should be a beacon of enlightenment and illumination but instead have allowed their football programs to drag them into the darkness of secrecy and suspicion.

It’s sad that this column had to be written.

Email me at mbianchi@orlandosentinel.com. Hit me up on X (formerly Twitter) @BianchiWrites and listen to my Open Mike radio show every weekday from 6 to 9:30 a.m. on FM 96.9, AM 740 and 969TheGame.com/listen