Such a bland, generic, corporate name. For $6 million, a private prison conglomerate ought to get more out of Florida Atlantic University than “Geo Group” atop the entrance to a football stadium.
Geo? My first thought was that they’ve renamed the stadium after the Geo Metro, a very cute if not very reliable little box of a car, 1989 to 2001. However unappreciated by the buying public, that particular Geo garnered considerably more affection than the Boca Raton-based Geo Group, which no one ever described as cute.
Confused football fans might also think they’re attending a stadium named for Pakistan’s leading TV channel. Or the Spanish national police anti-terrorism unit, Grupo Especial de Operaciones. Or the gene database maintained by the National Center for Biotechnology, a GEO that might represent a rather more appropriate association for a public university.
Obviously, the Geo known, if not very well, as America’s second-largest private jailer needs to extract something more from FAU so the company can distinguish its naming rights from all those other Geos. For another million or so, the university could change its nickname, making it plain what kind of outfit just purchased FAU’s dignity. Players could be known as the “convicts” or “inmates” or “lifers” or “the fighting felons,” decked out in prison stripes. Me, I prefer “jailbirds,” which retains the ornithological bent of the team now known as the Owls. The ACLU website devoted a page disparaging the Geo deal under the banner, “Welcome to Owlcatraz.”
The ACLU and other civil rights, human rights, and immigrant rights groups have intimated that when FAU hawked naming rights to a prison outfit dogged by allegations of neglect, abuse and general chintziness, the university was, indeed, selling more than the sign fixed to the football stadium. But a soul seems a tough commodity to monetize.
Carl Takei, staff attorney at the National Prison Project for the ACLU, complained to reporters last week that FAU’s sugar daddy was a “terrible company with a well-publicized track record of abuse and neglect and FAU should be ashamed to be associated with them.”
FAU president Mary Jane Saunders called Geo “a wonderful company.” Perhaps her estimation was influenced by an acute need for money. Tainted or not. No questions asked.
The university spent $70 million building itself an on-campus stadium that opened in 2011. Apparently, Geo was the only corporate sponsor willing to pay a half-million bucks a year for an affiliation with FAU’s less than grand venture into bigtime football (58 wins and 74 losses all time, with a record of 1-11 in 2011, 3-8 last fall). So the university happily signed a 12-year deal with the company formerly known as Wackenhut. I’m guessing that it helped that Geo Chairman George Zoley has two degrees from FAU and once served as chairman of the school’s board of trustees.
But it’s not as if the Geo brand will be foisted on great teeming masses of football fans. The 29,000-seat stadium (think of it as the Hoosegow, though I’d settle for the Calaboose, or even the Joint) averaged only 13,459 attendees a game last fall.
Besides, other stadium tenants have sold out to questionable brands. Kansas City’s pro-soccer stadium just wiggled out, not very gracefully, from the deal to call itself LIVESTRONG Sporting Park with that unhappy association with the disgraced Lance Armstrong. In 2010, the Tampa Bay Rays roiled the Charlotte County Commission with the announcement that the practice facility once called Charlotte Sports Park had been re-christened, for $75,000 a year, “Mosaic Field.” The county had spent 10 years and $12 million fighting Mosaic, the world’s largest phosphate company, over its plans to dig mines along the scenic Peace River. County commissioners went berserk and the Rays backed down.
Scores of stadiums and arenas around the country carry the logos of the very banks whose reckless business practices heralded the great recession. Others pay homage to purveyors of junk food, with college teams contributing to the national obesity epidemic by naming stadiums for Papa John’s Pizza, Pringles potato chips, Bo jangle’s cheesy biscuits, Taco Bell, KFC, Dunkin’ Donuts, Whataburger, Coke, Pepsi, Dr. Pepper.
These stadium names, at least, recall actual products that football fans might, say, devour at halftime. Somehow the designation Geo Group doesn’t seem likely to set off consumer demand for staycations in any of the company’s 73 prisons and detention centers around the world. Geo is really just buying an image makeover, a little PR to help the public forget the scandals and lawsuits that have plagued the prison privatization scheme in Florida.
The $500,000 a year going to FAU will be less than the company spent on Tallahassee lobbyists in 2011 ($645,000). The company has given out $1.2 million in political contributions to the Florida Republican Party over the last three years, in a failed attempt to get legislative approval to let private operators take over 30 state lockups in 18 southern Florida counties.
But maybe the news that the Geo Group has lavished a few million on FAU will nudge state lawmakers into finally embracing a prison privatization binge.
Of course, there’s a more direct method. Plenty state legislators, for enough money, would happily sell the naming rights to their own children.
“Hey, let me see a picture of your cute little Geo … Oh. Sorry. I meant the kid. Not the car.”