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Big Check, Naming Rights PDF Print E-mail
Written by Jay Beskin, BT Contributor   
April 2018

Is it the name of a school or is it a billboard?

TPix_JayBeskin_4-18here’s an old Jewish joke about tourists visiting the Mandelbaum Museum in Jerusalem. One American asks the tour guide, “Excuse me, is this museum named after Mandelbaum the painter or Mandelbaum the sculptor?”

“Neither,” says the guide. “It was Mandelbaum the writer!”

“Really, I never heard of him. What did he write?”

“A check!”

This old joke comes to mind while I’m pondering a very real episode here in our beloved Aventura. Former city manager Eric Soroka is keeping his skills sharp by serving as a consultant for the construction of Aventura’s new high school. And those skills were never on greater display than in his successful solicitation of the Soffer family for a two-million-dollar (no, wait – it’s more impressive with the zeroes: $2,000,000) donation in return for naming the school after the Soffers’ living patriarch, the Donald. Ha ha, just kidding -- but seriously, the two million dollars has purchased naming rights to the forthcoming Donald Soffer School.

For Eric Soroka, kudos for hard work. But is this an event we should be celebrating? Indeed, is it even legal?

Before we visit the issue of legality, let’s consider the question of propriety. Is it appropriate to sell the naming rights for a school to a person (or corporation) who hasn’t earned this recognition through admirable public behavior like, say, Martin Luther King or Marjory Stoneman Douglas?

I would make the argument that “selling the name” should only be considered vis-à-vis large sporting or recreational facilities, not places that value high academic achievement, like schools, universities, libraries, or laboratories.

Indeed, when I shared with a friend of mine the plan to sell the name of a school, he responded, “It’s Indecent Proposal without the sex!” For those who don’t remember, the film Indecent Proposal starred Robert Redford as a billionaire who offers a down-on-their-luck married couple, played by Woody Harrelson and Demi Moore, a million dollars to let Redford sleep with Moore for one night.

Most moviegoers were appalled by the choice the couple made to go for the bucks. Well, what would happen if Redford had offered the money for Moore to take on his last name for one night at an important event? Would audiences excuse the idea of playing a man’s wife and taking his name for one night, if no physicality was involved?

My friend may have been more graphic in his expression of disapproval, but his point is well taken. Names given to things have meaning, meaning that is at least partially defined by context. When we start confusing or obscuring that meaning, we get overlapping categories, resulting in a mishmash that leaves the important things in life without clear definition and thus bereft of value.

Consider the naming of a stadium. Is a stadium a place of achievement? Well, yes, achievement of a sort, physical exertion, along with team effort, competition, strategy, passion, and victory. Yet we might be forgiven if we define the stadium more by the entertainment it provides than by the skill and artistry that are involved in putting on an athletic competition. At least there’s room to debate the subject. So when San Diego Stadium, where the football Chargers played, was named Jack Murphy Stadium after one of the great American sportswriters and the man instrumental in bringing the Chargers to San Diego, that eponymous honor communicated a public respect for what he’d accomplished in his lifetime.

In 1997 the name was sold to Qualcomm Corporation and the venue became Qualcomm Stadium. In 2017 that arrangement expired, and the new purchaser of naming rights is the San Diego County Credit Union, leading to the current clunky appellation, SDCCU Stadium.

But whether the stadium advertises Qualcomm or SDC-whatever-whatever, it no longer bespeaks a recognition of excellence, and it no longer communicates to a culture that if you make something very important out of your life, your name will be immortalized in the public square.

Nothing against Qualcomm or the SD County Credit Union, but their names on a stadium involves a change in concept from the Jack Murphy days. And if we start naming schools after Mandelbaum the writer of checks, we’ll be bringing that self-same change in concept to the educational sphere.

It used to be that we found our two-million-dollar sponsorships with other lures, or inspirations -- but the names over our schools were Grover Cleveland or Harriet Tubman or Edward R. Murrow, or the aforementioned Marjory Stoneman Douglas. Now we no longer have a place for those tributes.

It seems to me that we should reserve the “billboards” that hang in our places of achievement for people of achievement. This isn’t to say that Donald Soffer isn’t a man of achievement, or that it’s not an achievement to make the kind of bankroll you can peel off two million dollars from, or that it’s not an achievement to donate two million dollars to a philanthropic cause. But emblazoning his name on our place of education can’t be said to communicate the virtue of high achievement to the students who will walk through its doors.

Not to mention that according to current law in Aventura, it’s illegal to name any public area after any living person, even one who’s noted for his or her work, rather than the paycheck it produced. Yours truly was a council member at the time that law was passed, and cast a yes vote to facilitate its passage.

We had more concerns at the time than just the question of naming rights turning into the object of auctions to the highest bidder. We also were following the Jewish dictum “do not believe in yourself until the day you die,” and we didn’t want to risk having a late-in-life scandal tarnish the name we’d held up for veneration.

This means that in order to sell the school name to the Soffers, it will become necessary to repeal that law and open the door to all sorts of pretenders and pretentious people.

I like to think that the work we did in the early days of the city to pass laws to protect it from trouble or scandal were well considered and well executed. I advocate strongly for retention of the law we passed in its current form. And I advocate strongly for a policy that honors not only the letter of the law but its spirit, overlooking the monetary upside in favor of the educational message.

We want our young people to aspire to be great teachers, scientists, doctors, even honest politicians. As for millionaires, that aspiration has enough draw without our boosting.

 

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