Sports Secrecy

Story and photo by Aimee Edmondson, Missouri School of Journalism

For former sportswriter Murray Sperber, it's the same old playbook. He asks for public records relating to big-time college sports and officials want to charge him a dollar a page for copies.

Then there's the "flood-the-zone trick." They give him piles of documents and figure he can't wade through everything to find the information they don't want him to find.

But he does.

The Indiana University professor has become one of the country's leading experts on the "perversion" of college sports, notably with his book Beer and Circus: How Big-Time College Sports is Crippling Undergraduate Education.

Sperber found that universities are spending more and more on their athletics, most of which operate in the red, while they pray for the "Flutie factor," the booming of admissions applications that accompany winning sports teams. "This has nothing to do with higher education," Sperber said. "The only way one even figures this stuff out is by using the Freedom of Information Act."

Sperber was one of three panelists for a session entitled Sports Secrecy: Stadium Deals In The Luxury Suites? at the annual National Freedom of Information Coalition conference, Seattle Sunshine: 2007 FOI Summit, on May 11-12.

Moderated by Plain Dealer managing editor Tom O'Hara, other panelists included media consultant Chris Van Dyk, of Citizens for More Important Things, and Seattle-area attorney Michael Brannan.

Van Dyk and Brannan have been notable opponents of the building of taxpayer-funded professional sports stadiums in Seattle.

Brannan's suit for documents relating to the Seattle Seahawks stadium has become a landmark public records case. He represented Seattle businessman Armen Yousoufian, a hotelier who wanted to know how the stadium hotel-motel tax extension would affect his business.

He won an open records case against King County for stonewalling his requests to review stadium records and planning documents. For its five years of stonewalling, the county may have to pay Yousoufian up to $500,000 in penalties.

The records showed Seahawks owner Paul Allen's heavy involvement in public officials' discussions and decision making. For example, government leaders thought an NFL stadium "blueprint" was required. Turns out, these were optional specifications put forth by Allen that included the number of suggested seats. Officials cited these as an NFL requirement, but they amounted to what Seattle Weekly called Allen's "field of dreams."

The Seahawks stadium is costing taxpayers about a billion dollars. This includes $300 million for construction, $291 million in interest, $37 million in sales-tax deferment for team-owner Paul Allen, $205 million to pay off the old Kingdome debt with interest, and $168 million to build stadium street access improvements, Seattle Weekly reported. About $101 million in King County sales tax put aside for the stadium would have gone to the state's general fund to help pay for education and law enforcement.

Allen, one of the wealthiest men in the world as co-founder of Microsoft with Bill Gates, gets all proceeds from the stadium's operations. He insisted that a new stadium be built before he would buy the Seahawks and keep the team in Seattle.

One question Brannan and Van Dyk ask is whether state voters would have approved the stadium's construction if they had known more of what those hidden records contained. Out of 1.6 million votes cast, the stadium was approved by less than 37,000.

"The county stonewalled for four years, denying there were any other records. Eventually they disgorged hundreds of pages of documents."

This is a well-known case, Brannan said. But this kind of stonewalling occurs everyday.

"Public agencies in Washington State don't know what the law is," Brannan said. "Some don't even know there is a law. It's astounding."

"I'm hoping the courts will jump in and start punching the agencies. These records are the people's records," he said.