Throughout the public collapse of Prime Prep Academy, the charter school co-founded by Deion Sanders, the former Cowboy star has been accused of bullying and even attacking school employees who failed to cow to his demands for more power and more money.
Those allegations have largely been hard to corroborate, but audio recordings obtained by the Observer provide a glimpse into Sanders' angry and violent attempts to wrest control of his namesake school from his former business partner.
The audio comes from a meeting that included Sanders and D.L. Wallace, his Prime Prep co-founder, former business partner and the ex-CEO of the two-campus charter school. It's unclear from the audio when and where the meeting took place, and the source who provided it declined to provide those specifics. But Wallace has previously described a meeting that took place between him, Sanders and two members of Prime Prep's board in June 2013, at the field house on the school's southern Dallas campus. The content of the recordings matches Wallace's description of that meeting.
The meeting, at least based on the incomplete recordings we've obtained, seems to center on Sanders' desire for a bigger role, and a bigger salary, at the school. Though his nickname graces the building, Sanders originally ceded control to Wallace, and acted only as a coach on the football team and a general "leader." When the school was still in the planning stages in 2012, Sanders deferred Observer reporter Leslie Minora's questions about the logistics to Wallace.
But as the school struggled in its first year-plus, and after Sanders was briefly fired for assaulting an employee, he began angling for a bigger share of the responsibility, and taxpayer-funded compensation to go with it. Records show that Sanders was making $40,000 while Wallace, who has since resigned, was paying himself $120,000.
"I'm going to get more money, or there ain't going to be no school, that's just flat out how it's going to be," Sanders tells Wallace in the recording.
He admits he doesn't really need the money. "Forget me, because what I do with the money I'm getting, I turn around and stipend my coaches," he says, apparently referring to the small stipends usually paid to high school sports coaches. "Because God has blessed me, I don't really need it. But I'm going to get it because it's mine and my name is on the building. OK, that's just fair."
He adds: "I don't know who you can look in this eye in this room, and say, 'I'm going to give myself 120 Gs and I'm giving Prime 40.' You can't justify that."
Wallace doesn't reject the request, but he wants to know what official role Sanders wants to take on.
"Now you tell me then: What position?" Wallace asks.
"Position?" Sanders responds incredulously.
"HNIC," Sanders shoots back. That's "Head Nigga in Charge."
As Texas Education Agency continues its widespread investigation into Prime Prep, many have asked: Why did state officials even approve the school's charter in the first place? Sanders has the answer, even if he's only willing to share it in private.
"You don't even really know how we got this school in Austin, you don't really know, so let me tell you," Sanders tells Wallace in the recordings. "It ain't because all these inflated words and wonderful things we said, it was another way." Sanders lectures Wallace on the school's origins, reminding him how Sanders' own celebrity, and apparently special treatment from politicians in Austin, helped close the deal.
"Senators, political leaders that you hooked me up with, that you put me down with. That's how we got the school," Sanders says, before disparaging other leaders at the school. "You're talking about a nigga sitting up there that was an athlete who didn't graduate, another nigga sitting up there saying he's the president, that ain't graduate nothing, and we got a school. Think about that, man. How in the world do you think we got a school?"
That's when Sanders reveals his temper, and an apparent violent streak that's led to numerous allegations of assault and threats during his tenure at Prime Prep.
"I'm pissed off at you dog, because I trusted you, from man to man, I always had your back," he says. "I feel like throwing this chair at you and breaking your damn neck right now, and I don't even use profanity, but I'm going to let it ride, because I'm pissed off because I love kids."
"You look at it as business, nigga," Sanders says. "I look at it as kids."
Reached Wednesday afternoon by telephone, Prime Prep Board President T. Christopher Lewis told Unfair Park that he recalls once witnessing a "heated discussion" about "equity of decisions of the school between Deion and D.L Wallace," but he declined to comment further. "I don't remember that exact verbiage," Lewis said.
Wallace did not respond to an interview request. In December, though, he wrote a letter to parents at the school's Fort Worth campus, describing Sanders as someone unfit to work with kids. Most disturbingly, he claimed that Sanders had tried to choke him and another employee.
At a school meeting last month, Sanders was dismissive about the allegations that he assaulted Wallace. "Oh my god," Sanders told Unfair Park at the time. "God bless you, god bless you," he added.
We've tried to reach Sanders through various channels and received only an unsigned email from an email handle "deionssr":
"You're Trash!" the writer starts. "Maybe the worst writer we've ever seen. No wonder you write for a meaningless outfit like the observer. Write something that someone cares about. We're tired of the same old ignorant falsified stories."
Send your story tips to the author, Amy Silverstein.