Florida State University To Privatize Athletics Department

Florida State University is privatizing its athletics department, effectively allowing it to operate like a corporation that’s shielded from public-records requests.

FSU’s board of trustees voted on Friday to establish the Florida State University Athletics Association, the new direct-support organization that will oversee the athletics department.

According to the Orlando Sentinel, FSU said the decision to privatize stemmed from the “opportunity to streamline the relationship” between the athletics department and boosters.

“Obviously the boosters are there to raise money and provide a boost to the athletic department,” Florida State University President John Thrasher told the Washington Post. “I think this alignment will achieve that in a better way down the road.”

The way the new system works is as follows:

  • The Florida State University Athletics Association is created.

  • FSU Athletics Director David Coburn is made chief executive of the new private nonprofit.

  • Seminole Boosters, Inc. reports directly to Coburn.

Advocates for government transparency are convinced the real reason for the move is so that the athletics department can deny any public-records requests, such as internal financial documents, emails and text messages.

“It really doesn’t make much sense to me, except that they want to do everything secretly,” president of the First Amendment Foundation President Barbara Petersen told the Washington Post. ”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… there’s no advantage to it, other than avoiding oversight and accountability.”

Thrasher reassured that the university will continue to fulfill public-records requests.

“The idea has never been to be not transparent. The athletic department’s going to be very transparent,” he said. “Nothing’s going to change in that regard as long as I’m here. I guarantee it.”

Deadspin writer Lauren Theisen doesn’t buy it, arguing that it’s all too convenient that an athletics program plagued with controversies ranging from Jameis Winston’s sexual battery lawsuit to the death of a fraternity’s pet would make a move that shields them from outside inquiries.

In addition to being granted the privileges of a corporation, the athletics department still keeps its sovereign immunity. The immunity clause caps any jury judgments or settlements at $200,000. Anything beyond the $200,000 has to be approved by the Florida Legislature, with the tab picked up by taxpayers.

FSU is not the first higher education institution in Florida to make the change. The University of Florida and University of Central Florida have been operating their athletics departments as direct-support organizations for quite some time now.

During a deposition in 2010, former UCF athletic director Keith Tribble outright said the benefit of privatization allowed for the athletics department to conduct business “without having it, you know, be public.”

Michael McCann, a legal analyst for Sports Illustrated, did a wonderful job breaking down FSU’s transformation into a direct-support organization. He concludes his piece stating that perhaps Florida lawmakers should explore modifications to the DSO law.

This trend isn’t limited to Florida. Georgia and Pennsylvania have laws that allow athletics departments to stifle the public-records requests.