(Editor’s note: This story was originally published in Extra Points)
Almost exactly one year ago, I emailed a public records request to Texas Tech University seeking “all documentary materials related to 2018-2019 student athlete exit interviews.”
On Wednesday, that request materialized in a joint investigation story published in USA TODAY, which discovered myriad allegations of psychological torment wrought by head coach Marlene Stollings; inappropriate touching and sexual harassment by her hand-picked basketball trainer; and a potentially dangerous system of coerced overexertion, involving heart-rate monitors, which one former player described as, “basically like a torture mechanism.”
In a statement, Stollings did not address any of the specific allegations, other than suggesting the complaints were part of the process of her improving the program’s on-court success. Athletic Director Kirby Hocutt confirmed that, “based on information received,” the school had assembled a four-person committee to review the various allegations and that he had since “discussed this review with coach Stollings.” He made no mention of any specific action that had been taken.
(Late Wednesday, Hocutt told USA TODAY that, in the wake of our report, he had met for three hours with current Lady Raider players and coaching staff, and that the “conversation” would continue today.)
What distinguishes this particular story from the ever-growing list of athlete-abuse claims made against college coaches, is how they have been so thoroughly documented by Texas Tech — and yet, thus far, to little evident effect. For at least the last two seasons, Stollings has carried forth as head coach, pocketing over $700,000 in annual salary, despite the school maintaining a lengthening paper trail of alarming and widely-shared expressions of misery from numerous players on her team.
And yet, if not for what Texas Tech’s in-house lawyers would later describe as a “clerical error,” it very well might not have come to light.
Beginning last summer, I had made similar records requests of every other D-I institution subject to public disclosure laws, as part of a reporting project Luke Cyphers and I did to inaugurate The Intercollegiate’s launch.
The germ of this endeavor began two years earlier, when I was investigating the University of New Mexico’s athletic department for an independent — and, shall we say, narrowly focused — college sports blog called NMFishbowl.com. A raison d’être of this work was to explore unconventional ways of applying public records reporting to pop the hood on college athletics (much as how we are now striving to do at The Intercollegiate and Extra Points).
I began by making a lot of records requests for the emails of New Mexico athletic administrators and coaches and, in the course of perusing those communications, I’d learn things: like, for example, that outgoing college athletes are annually debriefed in end-of-season exit interviews. The value potential of this information, if obtainable, seemed tremendous. One of the biggest challenges for a journalist covering college sports is to get honest, candid athlete feedback in real time. The forces of obscurantism are strong in popular sports, and particularly intercollegiate athletics, where encounters between athletes and the press almost always take place in the presence of a coach or media minder. It is almost considered taboo for a reporter to directly reach out to an athlete without the permission of the putative “adults”— and unauthorized access is often punished with access limitations on the journalist.
I could go on for a while about how insidious this dynamic is — and how pathetic sports journalism has been in capitulating to it — but that’s for another newsletter.
In any case, I eventually made a records request for documents from the previous year’s exit interviews and encountered an absolute bonanza. NMFishbowl.com, my little Lobo blog, became the first media outlet anywhere (as far as I’ve discovered) to report on the contents of college athlete exit interviews. Among other things, the documents raised immediate red flags about now-former Lobo softball coach Erica Beach and spurred what became a 24-month stretch of reporting on allegations against now-former Lobo football coach Bob Davie.
The university’s lawyers did not try to withhold these records, although, after my stories ran, the athletic administration attempted to kill the messenger, posting an article on UNM’s athletic website (since rendered, appropriately, a 404 Error Message), which accused me of harming the athletes by revealing their anonymized criticisms.
When Luke and I expanded on this reporting nationally, this past fall, we found a wealth of information, much of it dispiriting, on everything from unsanitary workout facilities to uncaring coaches to unsettling racial tensions to institutions fundamentally uninterested in athletes’ lives outside the lines.
Although every school was given the same request, the responses varied widely.
Scores of schools outright denied our request — citing educational or workplace privacy exemptions — and we were still awaiting responses from over a dozen institutions by the time we went to press.
Among them was Texas Tech, which (little did we know then) was sitting on the most explosive of the materials we would encounter.
Let’s talk about Section 552.145 of the Texas Government Code.
Bear with me, because this ends with a good punchline.
In the state of Texas, the public information law allows governmental bodies (such as state universities) to appeal to the state Attorney General if it feels that records being requested are exempt from disclosure. This process is often done reflexively: I’ve probably made at least 50 requests to Texas universities over the last year, and at least half have been sent to the AG — a number of which quite obviously merited no exemption. In theory, this outside adjudicator seems helpful, but in practice it amounts to an easy delay tactic. Once a request is made, the governmental body (state university) has up to 15 business days to file a brief to the Attorney General Open Records Division, arguing its legal basis for a denial. If it fails to do so successfully, or within that permitted time frame, it must disclose the records or file a challenge in state district court.
As it came to pass, Texas Tech attempted to file its denial brief about my request on July 11, 2019 — the 15th business day after I had emailed it — but accidentally uploaded the wrong document into the public records electronic filing system. The school evidently was not aware of this error for two more months when, on Sept. 9, it received notice from the AG’s Office that it had failed to comply with the procedural requirements for an appeal and was therefore required to turn over the documents to me, posthaste.
Instead, in a Sept. 26 letter to Attorney General Ken Paton, the school pleaded for a mulligan.
“It is evident that TTU simply made a clerical error and by no means was attempting to delay or impede the public’s access to public information,” the letter, written by the school’s associate general counsel Ronny Wall, stated. “Thus, TTU is of the opinion that while it may have violated the technicalities of the statute, it did not violate the true purpose of the statute.”
Unbidden, it nonetheless provided the brief it had failed to file on time — a telling document in the context of what we now know the school was attempting to conceal. But also a telling document in the larger context of the debate over college athlete rights.
Indeed, in trying to prevent the release of its athlete exit interviews, Texas Tech argued that it was a “competitive bidder” in an athletic talent marketplace, in which it would be irreparably harmed if the information I requested got out.
Here’s how it fleshed out that argument:
“TTU has specific marketplace interests in the attached information. For TTU to participate in NCAA Division 1 and be a member of the Big 12 conference, it must recruit student athletes throughout the nation to come to TTU to participate in collegiate athletics…Recruiting students within the nation, and specifically Texas, is a very hard task and a competitive marketplace exists. In addition, there are millions of dollars in TV revenue and tuition at stake based on how well TTU athletic teams perform. Applications to TTU typically increase after particularly successful seasons (men’s basketball for example) due to the nationwide publicity received from competing at the highest levels.”
(As a digression, but not diversion: That’s a hell of a case from a P5 school to grant college athletes their full economic freedoms, what with this being a “competitive marketplace” and all, where “millions of dollars in TV revenue and tuition (are) at stake.”)
The rest of Texas Tech’s argument — a full page’s worth — was redacted on the copy provided to me, since it revealed “the substance of the documents” that the school was still endeavoring to withhold. It took another two months for that futile effort to be so declared.
On Dec. 5 — with the college basketball season now well underway — the state AG wrote back to Texas Tech to reaffirm that the school was not entitled to ask for a reconsideration of its ruling and could only delay the matter further by going to court. Otherwise, they were to fork them over.
Then, another two months went by, without a word.
In Mid-February, I checked in for a status update, and was told by the university’s lawyers that they were almost finished with the redaction process (“checking for student identifying information”).
Then finally, in the last week of February, I opened The Intercollegiate’s P.O. Box to discover it stuffed with a bulging manilla envelope postmarked from Lubbock. The enclosed ream of papers included RealRecruit survey results from 14 of Texas Tech’s 15 athletic programs — notably, I was later told, no men’s basketball players participated. But nine of the 15 women’s basketball players did participate, and their criticisms stood out, both individually and in aggregate:
So, what would have happened if Texas Tech hadn’t made its ‘clerical error’?
I’d like to think, on the merits, they would have still been required to disclose the documents. Several other public universities in Texas — including the University of Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Southern, UTSA and UTEP — handed over to me their exit interview results. But not every Texas school fully complied with our records request: North Texas and Texas State only provided the questions they asked their athletes, not the answers; and UT-Arlington redacted all the narrative responses (aka, the good stuff) from theirs. Meanwhile, Stephen F. Austin claimed it didn’t have any exit interview records to disclose.
While there was plenty of salient athlete criticism we discovered in the scores of other exit interviews we obtained from schools around the country, the Texas Tech women’s basketball documents were of a different nature. They told an important story, in and of itself.
We originally floated our findings in March to another national media outlet, but the pandemic put that collaboration on ice. So, we approached USA TODAY in mid-May about partnering on a story. The paper assigned the article to Jori Epstein, their Dallas-based NFL writer who, reporting on it ‘twixt Cowboys off-season coverage and Gannett furloughs, did a magnificent job, getting 10 players to discuss their experiences, four on-the-record. We were also able to obtain investigative notes from a previous head-coaching abuse scandal at New Mexico State in 2003, when Stollings was an assistant there. The main target of those allegations, former NMSU head coach Nikita Lowry Dawkins, is currently Stollings’ top assistant at Texas Tech.
In early July, Jori suggested we request Texas Tech’s most recent batch of exit interviews, from 2019-20, to see how they compared to the despair memorialized in the previous year’s. After enduring an eight-month foot-dragging in Round 1, I was more than a little dismissive of our prospects.
Nevertheless, the request was made and, two weeks later, the documents showed up (as PDFs!) in my email inbox, just like that. They were, as Wednesday’s story noted, also quite notable, insofar as they documented so much more of the same:
In 2020 exit interviews, a player said coaches “used fear to motivate you,” and that there was “not one person on this roster that feels comfortable going up to our coaches (sic) office.” “Do something about the coaches,” one player wrote, “so that my teammates don’t have to continue suffering in silence.”
Why didn’t Texas Tech take me for a half-year joyride the second time around?
For now, that remains mysterious: the university did not respond to a request for comment about its handling of my FOIAs.
Lucky break, you might be inclined to say.
But perhaps we should think about it the other way: What if Texas Tech hadn’t played the public records delay game in the first place? What if they had handed over the documents last summer, and the reporting commenced six months earlier? How much alleged suffering could have been mitigated?
In describing their experiences to Jori, some of the athletes expressed guilt for not blowing the whistle earlier and louder:
“I’ve seen people on Twitter commit and it makes me sick to my stomach,” one player said. “It’s like when you boil a frog, and you’re like, ‘This isn’t so bad. Then it gets worse and worse. “And then you’re dead.”
But it’s hard to see this as the players’ failing, given what we now know: For two years, athletes regularly raised serious complaints about the program and its leader, in various forums and with multiple school administrators, leaving behind an extensive evidence file.
It was all right there, all along, all documented, all just waiting to be disclosed.