GEO Group Rescinds $6 Million Donation to Name Stadium at Florida University
by David M. Reutter
A student-led coalition against naming the Florida Atlantic University (FAU) football stadium after private prison firm GEO Group claimed victory in April 2013, when the company withdrew its $6 million donation to the school for stadium naming rights following a high-profile opposition campaign.
“We won!” enthused a statement from the Stop Owlcatraz Coalition, a group composed of students, faculty and community members that was formed to fight GEO’s attempt to name the football stadium after the company. The coalition took its name from the FAU Owls, the school’s mascot.
“We’d like to thank everyone who signed our petition as well as all other allies and supporters who helped make our victory possible,” the statement continued.
In the aftermath of the controversy, FAU President Mary Jane Saunders resigned her position on May 14, 2013, although university officials said her contract guaranteed her a position at the school at 80% of her former salary. She is now employed as a professor in the university’s College of Science.
Saunders wrote in her resignation letter that “there is no doubt the recent controversies have been significant and distracting to all members of the University community.” She said another factor in her resignation was “fiercely negative media coverage.”
Saunders was a key player in the debate surrounding the decision to name the school’s football stadium after the GEO Group; she had staunchly defended the multi-million dollar deal and campaigned heavily for accepting GEO’s donation. GEO Group’s CEO, George Zoley, is an FAU alumnus and the private prison company is headquartered only a few miles from the university’s campus in Boca Raton.
Zoley holds Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from FAU. He previously served as a member of the school’s Board of Trustees and was the Board’s chairman at one point. According to Saunders, four other members of the Board have worked for GEO, including two past student government presidents.
The stadium naming controversy reached its darkest moment for Saunders when she was confronted by about 20 student protesters as she tried to leave the FAU campus. In a hurry to drive away, she allegedly struck 22-year-old student Britni Hiatt with the passenger side mirror of her vehicle – and then kept driving.
“By the book, it was a hit-and-run,” said Hiatt, who was bruised in the incident. “She hit me with her vehicle and proceeded to exit the scene without stopping her vehicle whatsoever.”
Hiatt was one of four students who testified before FAU’s Board of Trustees on March 19, 2013 in opposition to the stadium naming deal. She said she told the Board members that FAU should not be affiliated with a “system of oppression” that has led to the U.S. having the highest incarceration rate in the world, and that racial minorities, including members of immigrant populations, are disproportionately imprisoned.
By the end of March 2013 more than 60 civil rights, immigrant, student and faith-based organizations had sent a letter to Saunders and the university’s Board calling for the $6 million GEO stadium naming agreement to be rescinded.
“We strongly believe that FAU should not choose to compromise its values by allying itself with a company that has such a shameful record,” the letter stated. The GEO Group “has been the subject of numerous lawsuits involving injury or death of incarcerated and detained people, sexual abuse, and security failures. They have failed state audits and been fined by a federal agency for willfully failing to take reasonable precautions to protect the safety of their own employees.”
The Human Rights Defense Center, which publishes Prison Legal News, was among the organizations that signed the joint letter. The stadium naming controversy received national news coverage, including articles in The New York Times, The Nation and the Miami Herald.
On April 1, 2013, GEO Group announced that it was withdrawing its $6 million gift to FAU, which would have been paid in 12 annual installments of $500,000.
“What was originally intended as a gesture of GEO’s goodwill to financially assist the University’s athletic scholarship program has surprisingly evolved into an ongoing distraction to both of our organizations,” said Zoley. “We employ many FAU graduates and Boca Raton community members. We take pride in running a well-respected company and are proud of our long-term support of the University,” he added.
FAU had been searching for a stadium sponsor to pay down its debt since it opened the 29,000-seat athletic facility in 2011. To build the stadium, FAU had borrowed more than $45 million. The $6 million deal with GEO – the largest single donation in the university’s history – would have named the facility the “GEO Group Stadium.”
“It’s startling to see a stadium will be named after them,” remarked Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership, a social justice group that opposes private prisons, when the deal was first announced in February 2013. “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 is the second-largest private prison firm in the United States and the largest internationally, with a market cap of around $3.13 billion. The company owns or operates almost 100 facilities with over 79,000 beds in North America, Australia, South Africa and the U.K.
GEO is also infamous for creating a culture of human rights abuses that have been regularly chronicled in PLN. For example, a GEO-run Texas youth detention center was closed after inspectors found it was “filthy” with “unsafe” conditions, including feces on the walls. [See: PLN, July 2008, p.18]. Further, several riots in 2008 and 2009 followed the death of an epileptic prisoner who was placed in segregation despite pleading for help at a GEO-operated federal prison in West Texas that housed mostly undocumented immigrants. [See: PLN, Feb. 2010, p.22]. Human rights advocates say abuses are ongoing at GEO’s Broward Transitional Center in Pompano Beach, Florida, only 10 miles from FAU.
Observers said the stadium naming deal was not as charitable as it seemed on the surface. “If it’s pure philanthropy, you don’t ask for your name to go on the stadium,” said Don Sexton, a professor of marketing at Columbia University’s Business School. “The only reason you want your name on the stadium is because you want something back.”
That “something” was apparently name recognition to help GEO land more detention facility contracts. “The company is dependent on public dollars for all of its profits,” said Libal. “When you look at other things that GEO gives to, it’s generally in communities where they have contracts or are seeking contracts, and certainly Florida is a state where GEO has tremendous interest.”
Since 2004, GEO Group has donated $1.8 million to Florida political candidates, parties and committees. A move to privatize a large portion of Florida’s prison system ended only after a state court ruled the legislative process that approved it was unconstitutional, and the following year a prison privatization bill was narrowly defeated. [See: PLN, April 2012, p.38].
Sports experts were also troubled by the GEO stadium deal. “The short answer is, I understand it to an extent,” 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 integrity in college sports. “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.”
“It can’t just be about the money,” added Paul Swangard, managing director of the University of Oregon Sports Marketing Center. “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,” he said of the GEO Group deal before it was rescinded. “That’s not fair, but that’s reality.”
On August 20, 2014, Florida Atlantic University announced that its stadium would be named after Howard Schnellenberger, the coach who founded the school’s football team. While FAU won’t get $6 million from GEO, the university does retain its integrity.
Sources: www.fauowlaccess.com, www.elnuevoherald.com, The New York Times, www.huffingtonpost.com, www.miamiherald.com, http://articles.sun-sentinel.com, http://usnews.nbcnews.com, www.palmbeachpost.com, www.bizjournals.com, www.upressonline.com, www.collegefootball.ap.org
As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.
Already a subscriber? Login