A bankruptcy judge ruled Friday that Cal Poly can’t remove Al Moriarty’s name from its football scoreboard, which means the university is being forced to continue identifying itself with a man convicted to defrauding investors of millions of dollars.
This is a column about communication, not legal technicalities, and what the court has done is force the university to promote the name of a criminal. That’s some message — not just from the university, but from the court, as well. Sure, there was an agreement, and sure, Moriarty paid to have his name up there. But imagine the following fictional situations:
Charles Manson purchases naming rights to a scoreboard sometime in the mid-1960s, and a school is forced to keep his name affixed there after the Manson Family murders.
Jeffrey Dahmer purchases the naming rights to a stadium, which continues to bear his name after he is sent to prison for a series of gruesome murders.
It could be even worse: Imagine the Ted Bundy Administration Building or the John Wayne Gacy Library. How about the Bernie Madoff School of Business?
You get the picture. This is not to say Moriarty’s crime is in the same class as those committed by the above notorious figures, but the principle is the same. A public university is in a position of public trust: Credibility is paramount. When you continue to display the name of a convicted criminal on campus, it damages your credibility. And (dare I say it) it damages the credibility of the court to force the issue.
Contracts are nullified all the time when the behavior of a person representing, in some way, an organization is called into question. The Donald Sterling case, in which the NBA forced one of its owners to sell the Los Angeles Clippers following racist comments caught on tape, is one example. The Baltimore Ravens’ decision to cut Ray Rice over the infamous elevator violence videotape is another.
It seems odd that Nike, a private company that’s in business to make profits, can suspend its contract with Adrian Peterson before the child abuse allegations against him even get to court, and Cal Poly, an institution of higher learning whose mission is to serve the public, can’t suspend its contract with Moriarty even after he’s been convicted.
If the court wants to facilitate the sale of the naming rights to another party, with the proceeds going to reimburse those who lost money as a result of Moriarty’s criminal acts, that makes sense. But forcing the university to keep Moriarty’s name up in the interim is, in effect, damaging an innocent party: Cal Poly. The bankruptcy trustee’s rationale, according to a story in The Tribune, is that Cal Poly would have less incentive to negotiate a settlement if the name were removed. The university is, in effect, being treated as though it were the criminal in this sad affair.
Certainly, a simple court order to negotiate such a settlement within a reasonable period of time, as defined by the court, should suffice. Yes, there are issues to be ironed out, but it can get done. Instead, Cal Poly is being forced to make a choice: Sustain continuing damage to its reputation by allowing Moriarty’s name to remain on the scoreboard, or negotiate a settlement under pressure.
The pressure invoked through the threat of continued damage to the university’s reputation is significant, and it puts the bankruptcy trustee at a clear advantage in negotiating the terms.
In the meantime, Cal Poly is, in effect, being forced to continue an association with a convicted criminal. Remember, Cal Poly itself hasn’t committed any crime — it’s a public university charged with preserving the public trust. The best way to do that is to get Moriarty’s name off the scoreboard, and every day that it remains there damages the university’s reputation.
This isn’t just about the law, it’s about sending a message. And the court, in this case, is forcing the university to send precisely the wrong one.