Update: This is now a state law. Everyone has basically admitted that Georgia's football coach inspired this legislation.
It isn't unusual for a state legislature to craft bills that might impact a local college football program.
But Georgia lawmakers are about to take an unusual step, voting to allow Georgia's athletic departments to take 90 days to respond to public records requests. Current law requires a response in three business days.
Why does anybody care about FOIA?
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and equivalent state laws allow people to inspect records from public institutions. Public universities, and thus athletic departments, generally fall under this. Individuals can request copies of documents like contracts, scheduling agreements, budgets, receipts and Internal emails.
These documents are invaluable for supplementing the work of journalists, especially as many athletic programs work to restrict press access. We've used FOIA to gain insight on conference realignment, on Texas charging coaches to eat with student-athletes and what fans are mad about (spoiler: probably the Stanford band). On a deeper level, FOIA helps hold massive institutions accountable. Even if you aren't a journalist, you benefit from these requests.
Georgia wasn't great at sharing documents to begin with. A few months ago, I filed a simple request: copies of emails sent to athletic department officials by ESPN reporter Darren Rovell. Other SEC institutions, like Auburn, completed this promptly, at no charge.
Georgia asked for $13,608. After some haggling, this dropped to $3,192 before falling to a more reasonable zero dollars.
Another reporter showed Georgia asked for over $30,000 to search for purchasing records.
So, why does Georgia want to restrict FOIA?
Georgia politicians seem to think a quick documents turnaround puts their football team at a disadvantage. Here's the justification from the office of Athens' state senator, Bill Cowsert, via the Macon Telegraph:
"It's a similar subject that, from what I understand, came to light through Kirby Smart at UGA. It had to do with football teams or athletic departments that are recruiting people in state of Georgia. They had a (shorter) window where the documents were not yet public, but other states had 90 days."
"It just allows us to play on the same field as Alabama and everybody else," said the bill's co-sponsor, state senator Earl Ehrahrt, per the Telegraph.
Schools in Alabama do not have a legal requirement to respond in a specific time period, which is atypical, and the Florida Gators are exempt from most records requests due to running their athletics via a non-profit corporation.
These lawmakers seem to believe an SEC rival could file a FOIA request and thus gain an advantage.
Among the few things that can be obtained, coach travel logs could theoretically tip off another school to a player Georgia's recruiting. But social media and regular recruiting coverage seem at least as likely to include that information, and more quickly. The recruiting activities of football coaches are hardly state secrets. The kids, after all, are happy to talk.
The idea that another school might be able to create some sort of competitive advantage by knowing Georgia pays coaches a lot of money, spends a lot on travel, or has expense reports for new construction programs is even harder to imagine.
The rest of Georgia's public institutions do not get 90-day grace periods to respond to public requests. Do lawmakers really think basketball coaches need more protection from scrutiny than the governor does? That's ... kinda weird.
All of this just speaks to the general paranoia in the SEC.
Coaches are so worried about giving up any tiny semblance of an advantage that they're willing to take all sorts of measures that look bad.
Take Georgia's transfer policy, for example. Under Mark Richt, Georgia had some of the most liberal rules in the country. If a student-athlete didn't want to be at Georgia anymore, Richt would let him go wherever he liked, even if that was another SEC school. Under Smart, that is changing, and now Georgia will have a strict policy that resembles the rest of the SEC.
It's one thing to prevent players from transferring to other SEC programs. But Smart is also preventing an Orlando running back from transferring to Miami, a school Georgia is not scheduled to play and a school the player wasn't even interested in.
"One of the reasons I put Miami on there was I wanted to set the precedent for the future, that kids would not be able to go to Miami right away," Smart said. "It's very important you understand that. That's pretty much standard operating procedure when a coach leaves one place, that a kid can't go there with the coach. That's important to me that people understand that."
Since players are unpaid amateurs, enforcing some non-compete policy on them seems gross and unfair. Georgia's changing its tune to try and become more like Alabama.
The funny thing is, Georgia isn't at a massive disadvantage.
It has plenty of money, has great facilities, sits in a beautiful college town and is in one of the best states for prep talent in the country.
Restricting access to public documents won't improve Georgia's recruiting. It won't make its quarterbacks any better. But it will hurt Georgia taxpayers, fans and anybody who cares about any other athletic department in the state.