Why would a major university want to be associated with a company that has spent tens of millions of dollars espousing views that go against mainstream science and the preponderance of historical economic data?
Do I even have to supply the answer? But here’s a hint: It’s in the title of songs written by Pink Floyd, the Beatles, the men in ABBA, R Kelly and the team that wrote the songs for the Broadway musical, “Cabaret.”
The major universities in question include Penn State, Iowa, Iowa State, Minnesota, Oklahoma, among others. The company supplying the stuff that makes the world go round is Koch Industries.
But those worried that Koch money is going to directly poison research into the effects of global warming, government regulation, the minimum wage and unionism, can rest easy. Koch Industries is not giving the research dollars to academic departments.
No, what the Kochs are doing is advertising to fans of the football and men’s and women’s basketball teams of 15 universities.
Koch recently announced a three-year deal to advertise to these universities with Learfield Sports, which is a company that negotiates advertising deals for dozens of college sports programs across the country. The news release announcing the deal calls it a “multi-year, integrated national sponsorship platform,” whatever the heck that is. Besides advertising, Koch will have signs in stadiums and arenas, social media advertising campaigns and other nontraditional marketing programs.
The news release doesn’t really get into what the Kochs will be saying in their ads, except in the most nebulous of ways, such as “Koch looks to Learfield to tell its story..,” “college sports are a great fit for us,” and “develop a meaningful program…to help drive home their goals of being able to give back to the college communities.” We do know that the topic of some of the advertising will be honoring employees and retirees, a common way that corporations combine marketing with employee relations.
A wonderful opinion piece by Kavitha A. Davidson, who writes sports opinion pieces for Bloomberg News, points out the similarities between the goals of Koch Industries and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), which is not a party to the deal, except by inference (since the NCAA sets the rules for college sports). Both Koch Industries and the NCAA are fighting unions; Koch has also spent a lot of money opposing the minimum wage, while the NCAA is currently being sued for minimum wage law violations.
Davidson misses another way that Koch Industries resembles college sports: College sports distort the mission of universities, just as the millions of dollars that Koch spends on political campaigns distort our political process and what should be the mission of our elected officials. Sports money corrupts many institutions, as we see in the recent examples of the University of North Carolina and Syracuse University, just as Koch money corrupts our political process.
Even if Koch Industries doesn’t use the opportunity to speak with millions of college sports fans to spread its boldfaced lies about the mythical free market, taxes, the minimum wage, global warming and unionism, it will still be furthering its political agenda, which hurts everyone in the United States except the top .1% in terms of wealth. Every happy-faced employee and retiree lauded for contributing to the community or the company and every mention of Koch Industries sponsoring this or that sports radio feature will improve its reputation with the target market. Plus, there are many subtle ways to sneak in hidden messages: references to the power of the free market to solve problems and the value of volunteerism (as opposed to government programs); citations of the huge number of Koch employees or Koch contributions to communities; faces of happy and hard-working women and minorities. Moreover, the repetition of the Koch name in association with what the audience perceives as a positive experience (college sports) will offset the many references in the news media to the Koch family’s support of rightwing think tanks and political candidates.