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February 20, 2013

"A Company That Runs Prisons Will Have Its Name on a Stadium"

STADIUM-articleLargeThe title of this post is the headline of this lengthy and fascinating article from the sports section of today's New York Times.  Here are excerpts:

In recent years, where stadium naming rights could be sold, universities and professional sports teams have sold them — to airlines and banks and companies that sell beer, soda, doughnuts, cars, telecommunications, razors and baseball bats....

On Tuesday, that trend took another strange turn when Florida Atlantic University, in Boca Raton, firmed a deal to rename its football building GEO Group Stadium. Perhaps that pushed stadium naming to its zenith, if only because the GEO Group is a private prison corporation.

For this partnership, there is no obvious precedent.  The university’s president described the deal as “wonderful” and the company as “well run” and by a notable alumnus.  But it also left some unsettled, including those who study the business of sports and track the privatization of the prison industry.  To those critics, this was a jarring case of the lengths colleges and teams will go to produce revenue, of the way that everything seems to be for sale now in sports — and to anyone with enough cash.

“This is an example of great donor intent, terrible execution,” said Paul Swangard, the managing director at the University of Oregon Warsaw Sports Marketing Center.  “Here’s a guy with strong ties to the university, who wants to make a difference, and is mixing his philanthropic interest with a marketing strategy that doesn’t make any sense.”

The GEO Group, which is based in Boca Raton, secured the naming rights with a $6 million gift, paid out over 12 years through its charitable arm, the largest such donation in Florida Atlantic’s athletic history.  In a news release, the university said the money would finance athletic operations, the stadium, scholarships and “academic priorities.”

The stadium, which opened in the fall of 2011, cost $70 million and seats more than 29,000. It offers 6,000 premium seats, 24 suites and 26 loge boxes. In a telephone interview, the university’s president, Mary Jane Saunders, noted that GEO’s chairman, George Zoley, had two degrees from Florida Atlantic and once served as chairman of the Board of Trustees. Four members of the board, Saunders added, have also worked for the GEO Group, including two past student government presidents. The company’s corporate headquarters overlook the stadium....

Critics say the cost may be too high.  One is Bob Libal, the executive director of Grassroots Leadership, a social justice group that opposes private prison systems.  Libal said the GEO Group “poured enormous resources” in recent years into “attempting to take over a large portion of the Florida prison system.” He said the company’s usual practices included lobbying and charitable donations, often in areas where it operated facilities or planned to. To that end, this move could represent a way for the company to rebrand itself in Florida, he added....

GEO Group reported revenues in excess of $1.6 billion in 2011, income generated mostly from state and federal prisons and detention centers for illegal immigrants.  The company owns or runs more than 100 properties that operate more than 73,000 beds in sites across the world.  It holds nearly $3 billion in assets.  The company has been opposed by civil liberty and human rights groups and immigrant rights organizations.  It has been cited by state and federal regulators and lost a series of high-profile lawsuits....

Asked if Florida Atlantic had looked into the allegations against the GEO Group, Saunders said, “We think it’s a wonderful company, and we’re very proud to partner with them.”  An N.C.A.A. spokeswoman said individual universities made decisions regarding naming rights, with no N.C.A.A. involvement.

Swangard, at the University of Oregon, said he told his students that “sponsorship begins and ends with objectives” and “sponsorship is not philanthropy.”  He said universities should draw the line where they can defend the natural association that comes with the company they do business with.  “It can’t just be about the money,” he said.  “That’s great, but at what cost?  Now, across the country, they’re going to say that Florida Atlantic can change its uniforms to stripes.  That’s not fair.  But that’s reality.”

As are the financial requirements of big-time college sports.  To that end, said David Ridpath, a professor of sports administration at Ohio University and a member of the Drake Group, a network of professors who lobby for academic integrity in college sports, those constraints must also be considered.  In an e-mail, he described his response to the naming rights deal as “ambivalent,” adding: “The short answer is, I understand to an extent.  But it does appear we’re prostituting ourselves to the highest bidder regardless of what they represent.  Again — the sanctity of higher education matters little when the dollars are needed.”

I tend not to be convinced in the big-money world of college sports by a claim that the "sanctity of higher education" is central to any decisions that get made concerning a university's sports program. Nevertheless, because of the unique products and brand that GEO Group represents, this is an amazing story whether or not one is a rabid college sports fan or a rabid sentencing fan (or both, as in my case).

Among other notable parts of this story is the new opportunity for new kinds of jokes about a lot more than the future uniforms of Florida Atlantic players. Is it wrong to start joking about Jerry Sandusky now having a new shot at coaching again or about the recruits being told that Michael Vick and Plaxico Burress are now kind of like alums?  Should we say that this deal brings new meaning to concerns about the so-called "school-to-prison" pipeline?  And might Florida Atlantic or the GEO Group bring some kind of court action to prevent anyone from now referring to Michigan's stadium as "The Big House"?

February 20, 2013 at 01:20 PM | Permalink

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Comments

Good point about the possibility of an entirely new variety of jokes! I'll leave an assessment on that point to people with a better sense of humor than me. Instead, I'll point out that, if quoted correctly, the university president's comments that GEO Group is "well run" are concerning. Here's how well run Google says GEO Group is: a) a $42.5 million malicious death verdict (http://www.pro8news.com/news/local/42646502.html), b) OSHA cited it for "six safety and health violations, including one willful, for exposing employees to workplace violence and failing to take adequate measures to reduce the risk of violence following a December 2011 inspection stemming from a complaint about the Meridian correctional facility" (http://www.osha.gov/pls/oshaweb/owadisp.show_document?p_table=NEWS_RELEASES&p_id=22536), c) the Justice Department cited the company for violating inmates' constitutional rights (http://www.justice.gov/crt/about/spl/documents/walnutgrovefl.pdf)...and that was after about 2 minutes of searching. Attorneys over at the Lifted Lamp blog have more examples (http://liftedlamp.wordpress.com/2013/02/20/hey-fau-drop-geo/).

César | crImmigration.com

Posted by: César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández | Feb 20, 2013 2:01:29 PM

Sad.

Posted by: Brian G. | Feb 21, 2013 7:04:01 PM

"Welcome to GEO Group Stadium!" Everybody is welcome. Enjoy your stay. Come out at your own risk.

Posted by: albeed | Feb 21, 2013 10:08:40 PM

It would be much more appropriate if the stadium was where the University of Miami or Ohio State played. They could put "Mean Machine" on their schedule every year for a scrimmage (Bert Reynolds, not Adam Sandler).

Posted by: TarlsQtr1 | Feb 22, 2013 11:37:10 AM

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