Sometimes the sports world doesn’t just reflect the real world. It mocks our world with a vicious veracity. Recently, we learned that Florida Atlantic University had sold the naming rights to its football field. This isn’t unusual at all, but the company the school chose amongst many suitors certainly was. The stadium will be known as GEO Group Stadium.
For those who have never heard about—or protested—GEO Group, it is a highly profitable private prison corporation. Governments across the world, from South Africa to the United Kingdom to Australia, pay the GEO Group to take over their jails and run them as privatized, for-profit enterprises.
In the United States, where the prison population has more than doubled since 1992 and is now the highest in the world, this is known as a growth industry. In many communities, where people of color are victimized by callously punitive laws (promoted by the lobbying arms of for-profit prisons), it’s known as the New Jim Crow. The GEO group is the second largest for-profit prison company in the United States, behind only the Correctional Corporation of America.
Florida Atlantic University President Mary Jane Saunder gushed over the GEO Group payment of $6 million over the next 12 years for stadium naming rights. She called the GEO Group a “wonderful company” and said the university was “very proud to partner” with it. “This gift is a true representation of the GEO Group’s incredible generosity to FAU and the community it serves,” she said. Given how cash-strapped most universities are, and given how university presidents have increasingly become glorified fundraisers, her joy is unsurprising.
But fortunately, her acceptance of this money is sparking anger and protest on campus and beyond.
“It’s startling to see a stadium will be named after [the GEO Group],” Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leaders, told The New York Times. “ 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.”
Getting the naming rights is part and parcel of an effort by GEO Group CEO (and Florida Atlantic alum) George Zoley to rebrand the corporation as beneficent, as it undergoes a high-profile effort to take over a significant section of Florida’s prison system, the third largest in the United States. The company needs this makeover after being dogged with protests and lawsuits throughout the state on charges that it, as the Palm Beach Post reported, pads its “profits by cutting worker wages, skimping on inmate health care and ignoring safety and sanitation.”
Undeterred, the GEO Group is looking longingly at Florida’s more than three million undocumented workers, fourth highest in the nation. The future of private prisons may lie in warehousing many of these immigrants. It’s a potential windfall worth billions of dollars to a company that already counts its earning with nine zeroes. And it already has been cashing in on this bonanza, running the Broward Transitional Center for immigrants jailed minor nonviolent offenses or for not having their papers in order.
Its record at Broward has been scandalous, according to the Sun Sentinel, which reported on an undercover investigation by immigrants that revealed “incidents of substandard or callous medical care, including a woman taken for ovarian surgery and returned the same day, still bleeding, to her cell, and a man who urinated blood for days but wasn't taken to see a doctor.”
In Mississippi, the GEO Group also was embroiled in scandal for the way it ran the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility in Mississippi. The Justice Department found that prison personnel engaged in "systemic, egregious and dangerous practices,” including participating in gang fights. Guards and even the warden were allegedy engaging in sex with inmates, the report said, saying such practices were “among the worst that we've seen in any facility anywhere in the nation.” A federal judge also called the prison “a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts and conditions.”
Six million dollars is a small price to pay for the kind of public relations that would whisk these scandals under the sand. The GEO Group aims to be as Florida as a roseate spoonbill and a glass of orange juice—or make that an orange jumpsuit.
Students understand this reality and aren’t going to just let it happen without putting up a fight. “The fact that they are locking up people of color and immigrants like my parents is shameful,” says Noor Fawzy, a twenty-two-year-old member of the student government whose parents are Palestinian immigrants. “We don’t want our university to be associated with an entity that is being investigated for human rights abuses.” Other students who have had relatives locked away in GEO facilities, only to emerge with horror stories of mistreatment, are also speaking out.
It’s long been said that for too many people of color in the state of Florida, your future is confined to either playing football or ending up in the penitentiary. Universities like Florida Atlantic are supposed to represent an alternative to that kind of dystopic state of affairs. Florida Atlantic may go down in history as the school that dropped all pretense and brought the gridiron and the prison together.
Dave Zirin is the host of Sirius XM Radio’s popular weekly show, “Edge of Sports Radio.” His newest book is “Game Over: How Politics Has Turned the Sports World Upside Down” (The New Press).