Mayo: FAU stadium deal with prison company GEO Group is ripe for ridicule

My first reaction when I heard Boca Raton-based GEO Group was paying $6 million for stadium naming rights to Florida Atlantic University: A prison company sponsoring a college football stadium? Wouldn’t the University of Miami Hurricanes be a better fit?

My next reaction: How does a private company that depends on government contracts and taxpayer dollars for business turn around and use $6 million to put its name on a college stadium? I mean, doesn’t that seem at odds with the (Republican) party line that privatization leads to more efficient use of tax dollars?

I don’t see the Florida Department of Corrections putting its name on any stadiums or arenas, do you?

As one SunSentinel.com message board commenter put it, “Do we need any more evidence that there’s big bucks to be made running prisons?”


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And besides, who exactly is GEO Group marketing to? This isn’t like a bank or pizza chain putting their name on a college stadium, with the advertising attracting potential customers.

How many FAU fans are going to see GEO Group Stadium and think, “Oh, next time I need to find someone to run my immigrant detention center, I’ll definitely give them a call!”

So score another one in the weird column for FAU.

After taking a public relations hit last month with the wacky Internet musings of tenured communications professor James Tracy about the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre, now we have the school’s fledgling football program an easy target for ridicule.

Will the stadium be rimmed with concertina wire and armed guards? Will concession stands sell “prison loaf” instead of hot dogs? Will luxury suites be retrofitted with bars instead of windows?

And what will the place be called: Owl-catraz? The Bird Cage? Or maybe a variation of GEO Group’s previous name: The Wacken Hut?

Besides all the jokes, administrators open themselves to criticism about taking money from a firm that has been targeted by government regulators, human rights activists and lawsuits for its treatment of prisoners and employees. GEO Group, which also runs state psychiatric hospitals, might help its image more by funding scholarships or programs related to criminal justice or mental health.

At a news conference on Tuesday, FAU president Mary Jane Saunders said GEO Group was “a wonderful company and we’re very, very proud to be partnered with them.”

GEO Group’s founder, George Zoley, is an FAU alumnus and former chair of the school’s trustee board. The firm’s headquarters are a few miles away from FAU’s campus. Zoley said he sees this as an example of “community outreach” and good corporate citizenship.

The gift will be spread over 12 years, and GEO Group certainly can afford it, with 2011 revenues of $1.6 billion and net profit of $98 million.

Longtime college football powerhouses like Notre Dame, Ohio State and Michigan get so much support they don’t have to put corporate names on their stadiums. The University of Florida’s stadium is named for Ben Hill Griffin, a citrus grower, politician and generous benefactor to his alma mater. Florida State’s stadium is named for Doak Campbell, the former school president who spearheaded its construction.

But football neophytes like FAU have to take what they can get.

I just hope FAU understands that in this case, besides $6 million, the school might get more grief than it bargained for.

mmayo@tribune.com, 954-356-4508