FAU’s football stadium gets a new name from a prison company with years of legal baggage

Photo by Ryan Murphy

Photo by Ryan Murphy

Within minutes of the Board of Trustees’ vote, the image of a rotating FAU logo disappeared from the TV screen in the stadium recruitment room. Replacing it was a white screen with the words “Welcome to GEO Group Stadium.”

A subtle change, but one that couldn’t have been more impactful if iron bars had dropped down over the windows.

On Tuesday, Feb. 19, FAU’s Board of Trustees (BOT), 13 appointed officials that make major university decisions, passed a motion to change the name of FAU’s football stadium to GEO Group Stadium after a $6 million dollar donation from GEO Group, Inc., a Boca-based corporation that operates private prisons worldwide.

“It’s really a great day in the development of our athletics department and our university,” former football head coach and university ambassador Howard Schnellenberger said at the meeting. “This day should be marked as a renaissance day.”

GEO Group is a “correctional and detention facilities” operator with 101 facilities, approximately 73,000 beds, and 18,000 employees located in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and South Africa, according to its website.

FAU alumnus and CEO George Zoley made the $6 million donation to the FAU Foundation. The charity’s director, Jennifer O’Flannery Anderson, introduced the motion to rename the stadium.

The $6 million donation will go towards relieving the $70 million debt FAU acquired after the stadium was built, according to Katrina McCormack, assistant athletic director of media relations.

According to former Athletic Director Craig Angelos in Jan. 2012, FAU needs $2.5 million a year in order to pay off the $44.5 million loan taken out to finance the stadium in 2010.

The debt was originally being paid from funds for athletic scholarships. According to McCormack, the funds for athletic scholarships will now be restored in the athletic budget.

“We are so grateful for this gift because it represents everything good about philanthropy,” Anderson said.

“We see this university continuing to grow and just has a very exciting future, which we now can be part of.”  said Zoley.

On Feb. 19 George Zoley (left) and GEO Group partnered with President Saunders (far right) and FAU in the naming of the football stadium. Photo by Max Jackson

Zoley received both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from FAU in 1972 and 1975. And he isn’t the only FAU alumnus at the company. Half of GEO Group’s six board of directors are FAU alumni or have held positions on various boards at FAU, including the BOT.

Besides the board, two FAU alumni, Pablo Paez and Abraham Cohen serve in the corporation’s corporate relations team and previously served as SG presidents and former BOT members — Paez in 2002 and Cohen in 2008. That’s four former BOT members, for those of you keeping score.

“Our company and our Foundation have strong relationships with Florida Atlantic University,” Paez said. “We employ hundreds of FAU Alumni who are excelling in their chosen fields.”

Christopher C. Wheeler, one of the men who currently sits on the board of directors of the GEO Group, is also a current member of the FAU Foundation board of directors — the same foundation that the $6 million donation from the GEO Group was made out to.

“Oh, it’s a huge relief. It’s a big deal,” said FAU Athletics Director Pat Chun, about settling the naming rights. “This is a big day for our athletic program. It allows us to move forward and it’s another sign of growth. The good programs always continue to grow.”

“We are incredibly grateful for this wonderful gift,” said FAU President Mary Jane Saunders in an email statement. “It is so exciting to now have a name for our beautiful stadium, and I couldn’t think of a better way to do that than by way of philanthropy. This gift is a true representation of the GEO Group’s incredible generosity to FAU and the community it serves.”

In the past seven years, GEO Group has gained some media attention, as well as served as the defendant in over one hundred lawsuits. One example of this attention occurred in 2007, when a prisoner riot occurred at the New Castle Correctional facility in Indiana, a facility that had been acquired by GEO Group the previous year, according to USA Today.

In 2010, the GEO Group-managed Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility was under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice.

GEO Group’s staff at the facility, according to the lawsuits filed, have been charged with sexual misconduct involving the youth inmates and illegal drug smuggling, specifically the sale of illegal drugs to the youths incarcerated in the facility.

GEO Group did not take over this facility until 2010. The Department of Justice found that, two years later, GEO Group had done nothing to improve the conditions at the facility, with their actions called ”deliberate indifference.” Two days before a DoJ hearing in the summer of 2012, no actions had been taken in regards to the facility or its staff (which, on top of the charges, was also undermanned). This led to a single inmate being assaulted and beaten by a large group of inmates, with only a single facility staff worker on hand, according to the lawsuit. The settlement required all youth inmates to be transferred from the GEO-operated prison to a government-run juvenile justice facility.

Some students disagree with FAU’s decision to name a stadium after a company that runs prisons and illegal immigrant facilities. (see “Prison Snitches” sidebar for more). “Honestly, I feel like it’s wrong,” said freshman neuroscience & behavior major Jonathan Saint-Louis. “To me it kind of sounds like accepting dirty money. I find it very hard to believe that an organization such as GEO Group would just gift a school whatever-million dollars for the stadium.”

Despite this, FAU President Mary Jane Saunders supports the rename and doesn’t mind GEO Group’s legal baggage.

“Absolutely not,” said Saunders. “They’re a wonderful company and we’re very, very proud to be partnered with them.”

[Regina Kaza, Zack Kelberman, Rolando Rosa, Michael Chandeck, and Lulu Ramadan contributed to the reporting of this story.]

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Strange college football stadium names

Although it may be hard to beat FAU’s stadium being named after a prison, other colleges have odd origins and backstories for their football stadium names. The UP picked the top five college football stadium names across the country with weird backgrounds. Check out the list below.

1. Heinz Field, University of Pittsburgh
Heinz Field is the stadium used by the University of Pittsburgh’s Panthers and the Pittsburgh Steelers, and is named after the Heinz ketchup company, H. J. Heinz Company. The stadium’s name originally was Three Rivers Stadium until Heinz purchased naming rights in 2001. This $50 million donation went to the Steelers.

2. Strawberry Stadium, Southeastern Louisiana University
The name says it all. Farmers in Louisiana grow strawberries, the official state fruit. Louisiana Strawberries lists 15 farms and growers for the state’s strawberries. One of the farms listed, Ciampa Farms, is located in Hammond, La., where Southeastern Louisiana University is located. The school must have thought it’d be cute to play football in a stadium named after their local strawberries.

3. Gillette Stadium, University of Massachusetts Amherst
If you ever plan on attending a game at the stadium for the University of Massachusetts’ Minutemen football team or the New England Patriots, be sure to shave beforehand. Originally the CGMI Field, Gillette purchased naming rights in 2002. There are no stats available for how much Gillette has spent, but CGMI Investments paid $120 million for 15 years when they had naming rights.

4. Autzen Stadium, University of Oregon
The Autzen Foundation, led by Thomas J. Autzen, donated $250,000, for the naming rights of the stadium. Autzen is an alumni of the University of Oregon’s rival school, Oregon State University. The stadium was named after his son, who attended University of Oregon, according to the Oregon Encyclopedia.

5. Kidd Brewer Stadium, Appalachian State University
Appalachian State University changed the name of its stadium, originally Conrad Stadium, in honor of its former head coach Kidd Brewer. FAU isn’t the only school in the country with a stadium name affiliated with prison. Brewer ended up going to prison for bribery in 1962. According to Star News, he “[paid] a highway commission engineer to rig specifications to favor companies he worked for.”

Sources:
Bleacher Report, May 7, 2012
Bleacher Report, March 18, 2012
Star News
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Ballparks
University of Oregon Libraries
The Oregon Encyclopedia
GoASU
Louisiana Strawberries

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Wikileak
Between the night of Feb. 19 and Feb. 20, GEO Group’s Wikipedia page got a major edit. A section of the article entitled “Controversy,” which detailed some of the lawsuits against GEO Group and media coverage of them, was deleted.

The “View History” tab of the article revealed that the editing was made by a Wikipedia user by the name of “Abraham Cohen.” Abraham Cohen also happens to be the name of former Student Government President, who graduated in 2009, and now works as the GEO Group Corporate Relations Manager.

The UP emailed Cohen about the change to the article at 2:12 p.m. At 2:18 p.m. GEO Group’s Wikipedia article was re-edited, by the same user identified as “Abraham Cohen,” and the Controversy section was back along with citations that had also been previously removed.

At 2:41 p.m. Cohen wrote:

“As a matter of policy our company as most companies in the world routinely updates our Wikipedia page to reflect accurate and factual information. It is never our intention to delete information that has been posted by other users but rather to provide supplemental information that is factual and accurate…Our social media team uses a common log-in which is registered to my name. Upon receiving your email I checked with our social media staff and realized that some of the information on the page was accidentally and temporally removed, while they were in the process of conducting our routine updates. That information was immediately added back with all the other updates the team was working on as soon as it was brought up to my attention.”

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