One of the most remarkable elements of college sports relative to professional sports is how much information eventually shows up. And a lot of that is thanks to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. At public universities, everything from emails to text messages on university-issued phones is generally considered to be subject to FOIA requests, and that’s led to some quite amusing results in terms of publicizing internal communications (even if that usually happens quite a bit after the fact, thanks to how the FOIA process works).
The latest case in point is around the NCAA penalties handed out to the Tennessee Volunteers’ football program Friday over recruiting violations under former head coach Jeremy Pruitt, with Adam Sparks of The Knoxville News-Sentinel also publishing a story that day, including 12 of the most notable text exchanges (out of approximately 6,000 the paper obtained and reviewed) from within the program that he received via a FOIA request:
'Hell he may f-ck around and run us up and go to UGA'
These text messages from phones of UT coaches and staff members will open your eyes.https://t.co/INErk0lZLg
— Adam Sparks (@AdamSparks) July 14, 2023
One particularly notable exchange found within that remarkable story:
On Oct. 27, 2020, in the final days of the recruiting scandal, Pruitt’s coaches showed their hand.
[Assistant coach Shelton] Felton warned UT quality control coach Larry Harold not to send some unspecified information to his university-issued phone.
“Hey don’t text stuff like that to school phone,” Felton said.
Harold replied to the same phone number, presumably Felton’s work phone, with an acknowledgement of why Felton would make that request.
“Ain’t nothing we discuss need to be on that work phone. We trying to do some epic s***! Keep it street man,” Harold said to Felton.
The next day, Felton asked Harold to come see him in person. Felton then said “All about the Benjamins” in a text message with no context.
The discussion of NCAA athlete compensation is complicated and has received some further complications in the NIL era. And the actions at Tennessee here shouldn’t necessarily be considered as an anomaly; there have been many suggestions of impermissible payouts and other banned-by-the-NCAA behavior (a lot of the Volunteers’ situation is about their violations of COVID-era recruiting visit rules) elsewhere as well. But they were caught in a particularly notable fashion, and that’s what’s led to this punishment. And the FOIA-obtained text messages (which also include several suggesting Pruitt was personally aware of what was going on) are incredible evidence of what they did, which speaks to some of the remarkable power of FOIA requests in college athletics.