Call it the stadium that got its name by way of the new Jim Crow.
Scores of football players, many of them black, will be making money for Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Fla., by catching passes, making tackles, and scrambling into the end zone.
And from the looks of things, those FAU Owls may wind up playing in a stadium named for a company that built its wealth not by capitalizing on the physicality of black people, but on their mistakes.
The university, it seems, is bound and determined to sell naming rights to its new stadium to GEO Group – the nation’s second-largest private prison corporation. One of the juvenile detention facilities GEO operated in Mississippi, Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility, was so badly run that, according to National Public Radio, a federal judge wrote that it allowed “a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts and conditions to germinate, the sum of which places the offenders at substantial ongoing risk.”
GEO officials told NPR that the abuses occurred before it took over in late 2010. Federal officials, however, dispute that.
But in spite of that dubiousness GEO’s chairman, who has two degrees from FAU, is ponying up $6 million for the right to emblazon his company’s name on the stadium. As such, the move has sparked protests from students and community leaders, who are calling the stadium “Owlcatraz.”
Yet the school’s president, Mary Jane Saunders, doesn’t appear to be budging. She even went as far as to say that the gift was given with love.
Yeah, like the love GEO gave to the youths at Walnut Grove.
Still, it was only a matter of time before something like this would happen; before a private prison enriched by the mass incarceration of black people, and black males in particular, over minor drug crimes, would try to attach its notoriety to something more prestigious than the rural, mostly-white towns whose economies they have built.
This is maddening on a number of levels.
One is the fact that around 17 percent of FAU’s 30,000 students are black. To name a stadium after a corporation that, besides apparently subjecting juveniles to abusive conditions in one of its facilities, also benefits from incarcerating scores of black people, is insensitive and insulting.
Another is that few of the black people it profits off of will ever get a chance to attend that university, or any university, for that matter, even if they’ve completed their sentences and meet the entrance requirements.
That’s because it’s extremely difficult for felons to get financial assistance for school, and even tougher for them to be admitted – not to mention the fact that it’s next to impossible for them to get jobs or housing.
Many wind up back in prison – and further fattening the pockets of private prison corporations like GEO.
Then there’s this: Florida spends nearly $3 billion a year on its corrections system. Three of the 59 facilities that GEO operates in the U.S. are in Florida.
That’s money that could be used to pay teachers, or provide the services needed to rebuild communities and create the kind of social and economic stability that might deter people from committing crimes.
That money could also be used to support universities like FAU so that its president won’t be so desperate as to make excuses for accepting money from a corporation that lobbies for state money that it could be using.
But it isn’t.
I hope the protests continue. Because it’s one thing to name a stadium after a company that promises banking or financial services, or office products, or food. They profit off meeting people’s needs.
But it’s another to name a stadium after a corporation that profits by exploiting people’s mistakes – especially the mistakes of a disproportionate number of black males.
Black males who, if they aren’t lucky enough to be playing football in FAU’s new stadium, are certainly paying to have it named after their jailers.
Tonyaa Weathersbee is an award-winning columnist based in Jacksonville, Fla. Follow her @tonyaajw or like her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tonyaajweathersbee.