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John P. David Headshot

The Trouble With Naming Rights

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We can prevent thousands of future public relations problems by implementing one simple rule: Never name something after a living person.

I have been musing about this topic for years but decided to offer up my rule after private prison company Geo Group this week withdrew its $6 million donation to become the name sponsor for Florida Atlantic University's football stadium in Boca Raton. Geo Group's CEO, an FAU alum, made a truly generous offer to have his company's name grace the stadium. Problems arose though when some pesky students realized that Geo Group has been tagged with a number of human rights violations at its prisons. Next came protests, boycotts and petitions, and after a few weeks of fireworks, Geo Group withdrew its donation. I think the end came shortly after some clever protestors started referring to the stadium, the home of the FAU Owls football team, as "Owlcatraz."

Now, we can't stop private companies from putting their names on facilities; there's just too much money involved. American Airlines Arena, Coors Field and Lucas Oil Stadium et al. are here to stay. But we can stop naming such things after living people. The risk of negative publicity is too high and the examples of PR disasters are too numerous. Here are a few, just off the top of my head:

  • In Miami, for a brief period of time in the late 1980s and early 1990s, we had a road called Jose Canseco Street. At the time, the former big league slugger and current outspoken steroid user was an adored alum of the school located on that street. Today, not so much. Once local officials learned Jose was juicing, they unceremoniously took his name off the street sign.
  • Last year, administrators from Penn State University were forced to remove the statue of legendary Coach Joe Paterno due to the Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal and cover-up.
  • In Coral Gables, Florida, officials from the University of Miami removed the name of convicted Ponzi schemer Nevin Shapiro from a campus athlete lounge. Shapiro, currently doing time, had pledged big bucks to the school. (UM gave the money back.)

I can go on and on.

Earlier this week, Miami-Dade commissioners decided that the board's auditor must complete a background check on any "person, organization, place or thing" under consideration for a naming. It's a good move. The Miami Herald reported that the decision comes on the heels of bad publicity surrounding Banah Sugar... City and county leaders christened a stretch of Southeast 10th Avenue 'Banah Sweet Way' in its honor. "Commissioners later found out that the firm's owner had served prison time for cocaine trafficking. Banah filed for bankruptcy in February." Classic.

My rule makes sense. Certainly if you can't safely erect a statue in honor of former living legends like Paterno, then everyone else should be persona non-grata.

I know this will be unpopular. For example, a quarter mile from my house sits Evelyn Greer Park, named after the first mayor of my little village called Pinecrest. Greer, who is still very much alive, was a fantastic mayor, did a great job getting our village off the ground and helped increase my property value by a goodly sum. Sadly, under my new PR naming rule, she would lose her park.

Say goodbye to the Bill Clinton Library.

Also on the chopping block: Peyton Manning Pass, the street in Tennessee named for the famous quarterback.

I would also suggest removal of Bobby Bowden's name from the field in Tallahassee bearing his name and [audible gasp] even the statue of Tim Tebow outside the University of Florida's Ben Hill Griffin Stadium (that name stays because Griffin has passed.)

In the future, we can build statues, name streets and christen ships after great men and women all we want. We just have to wait until they rest in peace.

This rule will save so many institutions from public relations embarrassment that PR people will recognize it for years to come. But if they want to name the rule after me, please wait until I'm pushing up the daisies.