The infiltration of corporations into every aspect of modern life is something that should be resisted, not least because the agenda of a private prison company is rather different to a university. Or should be.
Over to you, New York Times:
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. This led to memorable examples like Enron Field, the KFC Yum! Center and the University of Phoenix Stadium.
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.
Saunders said the GEO Group emerged as the “strongest prospect” for a naming rights partner, and at an important time, as Florida Atlantic moves from the Sun Belt Conference into Conference USA next season.
“We use no state money to run our athletic program,” she said. “It’s important for us to use our naming rights to fund the stadium and fund scholarships.”
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.
“It’s startling to see a stadium will be named after them,” Libal said. “It’s like calling something Blackwater Stadium. This is a company whose record is marred by human rights abuses, by lawsuits, by unnecessary deaths of people in their custody and a whole series of incidents that really draw into question their ability to successfully manage a prison facility.”
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.