Published April 16, 2012 - 4:28pm
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Former Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino’s previous intimate relationship with Jessica Dorrell—and the process Petrino used to give Dorrell a university job—is now a matter of public record. Thanks to state freedom of information laws, Arkansas has produced detailed telephone and text message records along with a lengthy paper trail documenting every step of Dorrell’s improper hiring and Petrino’s failure to follow university rules in disclosing his prior relationship with her. Arkansas has also released the formal termination letter athletic director Jeff Long sent Petrino, which detailed Petrino’s now-infamous $20,000 gift to Dorrell.
Petrino used his university cell phone to keep in constant contact with Dorrell. By the Associated Press’ account, he exchanged “more than 4,300 text messages and nearly 300 phone calls” with Dorrell dating back to last September:
Petrino, a married father of four, exchanged 91 texts with Dorrell on Sept. 13 and 84 texts with her over five hours on Oct. 28, the day before a game at Vanderbilt. On Oct. 17, the two swapped 73 text messages, and on four days in a row in the week before a loss to eventual national champion Alabama, Petrino called Dorrell early—at 5:52 a.m., 6:35 a.m., 5:49 a.m. and 7:55 a.m.
Barry Petchesky of Deadspin also reported last week the records showed Petrino exchanged nearly 200 text and picture messages “with a Little Rock cell phone registered to one Alison Melder,” a 26-year-old employee of the Arkansas Republican Party.
Writing for Sports Illustrated, David Epstein and Michael McCann detailed how Petrino “gamed” the hiring process at Arkansas to put Dorrell on the payroll as a direct report to him:
Records show that on March 12, Carrie DeBriyn, the human resources manager for Arkansas athletics, e-mailed the university’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Compliance to ask that the hiring process be expedited at Petrino’s behest. The e-mail said, “Coach Petrino would like to request to interview early due to needing a Player Development Coordinator as quickly as possible.” Without filling the position quickly, DeBriyn wrote, “we could potentially make a recruiting error with NCAA rules and regulations.” At 10:44 a.m. that same day, approval was granted to interview candidates. According to records, however, Dorrell’s interviews had already been scheduled and were set to begin at 9:30 that same morning.
In his waiver request, Petrino said Dorrell “had the best experience” for the player development coordinator position despite the fact she had never worked in athletics administration and, as the publicly available records showed, there were several applicants who had the relevant experience yet never received an interview.
Thanks to Arkansas law—and Petrino’s apparent inability to buy a disposable cell phone to stay in touch with certain female friends—we now know quite a bit more about the events leading to Petrino’s firing than perhaps Jeff Long and Arkansas officials would like. Yet all this transparency serves an important purpose. And it’s not upholding the “public’s right to know.” That’s a self-serving media invention. No, the real benefit here is to future universities that might consider hiring Petrino. There’s now a detailed public record that prevents any AD from saying they don’t know exactly what went down at Arkansas. Petrino’s next employer, if there is one, will not be able to pretend the Arkansas firing was some sort of misunderstanding.
Transparency scares almost all institutions. The NFL is so afraid of transparency, they instigated (then settled) a work stoppage in part to prevent public disclosure of teams’ financial records. Most media members accept the NFL’s institutional lack of transparency on the grounds that its a “private” business—ignoring the billions in taxpayer subsidies and special legal privileges enjoyed by NFL clubs. More importantly, members of the media value their special access to NFL decision makers. They tend to be the last folks who want any meaningful transparency, because it devalues their work, which depends on “league sources” and other non-transparent sources of information. If anyone can simply rifle through the league’s documents, anyone can be a journalist.
Consider the NFL’s own recent pay-for-injury scandal involving the New Orleans Saints. The NFL claims to have thousands of pages of documents detailing the Saints’ illegal activities—none of which has been disclosed to the public. Unlike Arkansas’ Jeff Long, who was quite open and transparent about his investigation and ultimate firing of Petrino, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has hid behind his media enablers to present a restricted, one-sided account of the Saints’ alleged misdeeds. In fact, when Michael Silver of Yahoo Sports uncovered an actual recording of former Saints coach Gregg Williams apparently calling on his players to intentionally opposing players, venerable Sports Illustrated writer Peter King used his column to attack the person who published the tape. “It’s just not right,” he said, that the public got to see information that wasn’t filtered through Goodell’s office. But as Yahoo’s Silver noted, during a previous scandal involving the New England Patriots, Goodell intentionally destroyed evidence to prevent public disclosure.
And that’s the crux of the issue. The Prime Directive of post-Watergate journalism is that protecting a source outweighs the “public’s right to know” all-day everyday. In fact, journalism may constitute the only market where intentionally deceiving your customers about the source and content of your product is somehow considered virtuous. Defenders of this status quo maintain transparency is dangerous because it results in massive document dumps that deprive the public of “context.”
As the Petrino story demonstrates, however, context is not hard to find in a sea of transparency. Yes, people naturally gravitate towards more salacious elements of the story, such as how many text messages Petrino sent Dorrell. But we also got a more complete picture of Petrino’s activities then we likely would have absent Arkansas’ generous freedom of information laws. (Contrast this with Penn State, which claimed an exemption from Pennsylvania’s “right to know” law that allowed it to withhold a great deal of information related to the Jerry Sandusky affair.) Jeff Long would not have been as forthcoming about his own investigation had he not known all this information would get out anyway.
As I noted above, we shouldn’t advocate transparency on the basis of the “public’s right to know.” That’s an inherently vague standard. What all states and public institutions should strive for is a standard that promotes transparency as the norm with limited, clearly drawn exceptions. Institutions should do this in their own best interest, since transparency will ultimately make it easier for them to discover or prevent a future Bobby Petrino of their own.