Kirby Smart admits discussing open records with lawmakers

UGA coach Kirby Smart

ATHENS — Kirby Smart acknowledged Tuesday that he was indeed asked about Georgia’s Open Records laws when he visited the state capitol recently. But Georgia’s new head football coach said he “doesn’t deserve credit” for a controversial measure that slows the public’s access to athletics information.

The bill, brought up and agreed to late on the night of March 22, would allow athletics programs in the state of Georgia to wait 90 days to respond to inquiries under the Open Records Law. That has been decried by First Amendment advocates.

The chief of staff to one of the bill’s co-sponsors, State Sen. Bill Cowsert, told the Macon Telegraph that it “came to light through Kirby Smart at UGA.”

Smart was asked about that after Tuesday’s practice.

It was during a visit to the state capitol last month that Kirby Smart told legislators such as Rep. Earl Ehrhart of UGA athletics’ need to alter open record laws. FACEBOOK PHOTO

“First of all, I shouldn’t get any credit for that,” Smart said. “When I went over to the capitol I was asked what’s the difference in our program and some programs I’ve been at in the past. One of the things I brought up, there’s a difference. And that was the extent of my conversation with those guys about that.

“So for me to get the credit for that is a little bit misleading.”

Smart declined a follow-up question on whether he felt changing the response time from three days to 90 was something the football program needs.

“I’ll be honest with you. I want to talk about our football program, and football practice,” Smart said. “That has nothing to do with as far as our practice today. I would rather answer questions regarding that. Appreciate it.”

Georgia athletics director Greg McGarity, who has declined comment on the legislation, attended Smart’s press conference on Tuesday but left as soon as it ended. It’s rare for McGarity to attend such post-practice press conferences.

UGA president Jere Morehead “did not have a role in the legislation,” according to a spokesman in the University System Office in Atlanta.

“We abide by the state’s open records laws. If this legislation is signed into law, we will follow the law,” the spokesman said.

Although Smart and proponents of the bill, including co-sponsor State Rep. Earl Ehrhart, have said this is about “a level playing field,” no other state in the SEC’s footprint has a response time close to 90 days. Alabama, where Smart worked for the past decade, says responses must come in a “reasonable” time frame.

“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” said David Cuillier, an expert on Freedom of Information laws, who is an associate professor at the University of Arizona. “This is crazy. My jaw dropped to the floor when I saw that.”

The 90-day response period is unprecedented, according to Cuillier, who looks at state public record laws, exemptions, and has written three books on FOIA laws. Most states allow for a response within three to 10 days. Others, such as Florida and Alabama, have general language.  Arizona language is “reasonably prompt,” and on average agencies will give a response of three to five days.

“Is it reasonable to drag your heels for 90 days, for something you could probably turn over the same day, or very quickly?” Cuillier said. “Ninety days I have never seen. That is unheard of. I have never seen a football program, or any government agency, have the ability to hide the information from the public for that long. …

“It makes them look bad. What do they have to hide? I don’t think it builds public trust.”

UGA associate journalism professor Welch Suggs, who focuses on sportswriting, has been on the other side, serving as an adviser in the president’s office. Suggs cautioned that he had not spoken to anyone in athletics about this issue, but remarked overall on the desire of coaches nationally to control the message.

“Given the high risk/high reward nature of the business, it’s understandable why they want to eliminate variables,” Suggs said. “But when I see athletic departments controlling access to coaches and players, limiting tweets and other publications, delaying information requests, and trying to control the stories that get out about them, I wonder how much it benefits the program or the university as a whole. Reporters are going to get their stories and information is going to find its way out. So it would be good to know if a strategy of controlling information tightly helps or hurts in the long run.”

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