Political football | Koch Industries makes play on college campuses

Lisa Neff, Staff writer

University of Wisconsin students cheered as the Badgers rolled over Rutgers on Oct. 31 at Camp Randall Stadium. But there also was a smattering of boos and catcalls off the field because, on one of the most liberal college campuses in America, the very un-liberal Koch Industries bought sponsorship of the game.

Koch Industries, owned and operated by the conservative billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, has sponsored UW football throughout this season.

“Really? There isn’t a university in Texas or Arizona that’s a better fit with Koch Industries than UW?” said Kyle Dunn, a Madison resident and UW alumnus, during halftime. He sounded like a fan outraged over a fumble. “If they are recruiting, they’re making waves in the wrong pool.”

A chorus of students and alumni have posted letters to the school, the athletic department and to Wisconsin newspaper editors noting the irony of the university benefiting financially from a conglomerate owned and operated by the billionaires behind political efforts to cut funding to public education, co-opt academic programs, influence scientific research and bust teacher’s unions.

Koch Industries first bought into college sports during the 2014–15 basketball season, with sponsorships at 15 universities. The sponsorship drive will continue into the 2015–16 basketball season, with fans seeing Koch signs and videos and hearing radio ads in college arenas.

Koch also has handed out such giveaways as sunglasses, according to the Center for Media and Democracy, a Madison-based watchdog and advocacy group that monitors right-wing activity, corruption and corporate influence.

Koch’s sponsorship at UW-Madison is through a multi-year contract between the UW Board of Regents and Badger Sports Properties, a subsidiary of Learfield Communications, Inc., according to The Capital Times, which obtained the contract through an open records request.

The Cap Times Oct. 22 report said the contract, worth more than $111 million to UW, gives Badger Sports Properties the right to sell game sponsorships and ads through 2026. The agreement gives UW officials the right to refuse sponsorships that adversely affect the school’s reputation or are contrary to university policy.

The policy, according to The Cap Times, prohibits sponsorship by tobacco companies and requires reviews of sponsorships involving alcohol and gambling.

However, the school apparently has no problem with Koch sponsorship — recruitment ads have been appearing on the Camp Randall scoreboard throughout the season.

A statement from UW-Madison’s media relations department said the school “doesn’t screen companies that sponsor our athletics program based on the political views of their owners. As a public institution, we don’t think that would be appropriate. UW Athletics draws support from a wide variety of firms.”

Rebranding and recruiting

Koch Industries is seeking to “bolster recruitment” on campuses, reshape its image and connect with “dedicated sports fans and university communities,” according to a news release from Learfield.

“Like student athletes, our 60,000 U.S. employees understand that hard work and team spirit are fundamental to winning and success,” stated Koch communications officer Steve Lombardo, who previously worked to rebrand the Philip Morris USA cigarette company. 

Learfield executive vice president Roy Seinfeld said, “There is a special passion and loyalty among the college sector that is like no other and we’re fortunate to bring this to life for Koch Industries and their many brands.”

Koch Industries is one of the largest private multinational conglomerates in the United States, with about $115 billion in annual revenues. Koch’s holdings are in asphalt, chemicals, energy, fibers, fertilizer, natural gas, plastics, petroleum, plastics, pulp and ranching — a stew of subsidiaries that environmentalists characterize as toxic.

The conglomerate is led by CEO Charles Koch and executive vice president David Koch, major funders of right-wing and libertarian politics. Their money, through a vast network of foundations, think tanks and PACs, goes to lobbying against expanded government health care, denying climate change, operating anti-government groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council and backing tea party politicians like Scott Walker. 

The Kochs, for example, have ties to the Virginia-based nonprofit Generation Opportunity, described on its website as “a free-thinking, liberty-loving, national organization of young people promoting the best of Being American: opportunity, creativity and freedom.”

A review by the watchdog group OpenSecrets found that 86 percent of funding for Generation Opportunity over a three-year period came from two Koch-connected nonprofits — Freedom Partners and TC4 Trust.

GO pursues a right-wing agenda and aims to persuade young Americans to vote against Democratic candidates and oppose Democratic initiatives, most prominently the Affordable Care Act.

SourceWatch.org, a publication of the Center for Media and Democracy, tracked GO’s campaign to convince young people to “opt out” of insurance under the ACA. In September 2013, GO announced it would spend about $750,000 on the campaign against so-called “Obamacare.” There was a tour of 20 college towns and lots of free beer offered.

Today, nearly 2.5 million people “like” GO’s Facebook page, which on Oct. 30 contained new posts about job scarcity, Affordable Care Act fraud, secret cellphone monitoring by police and Mike Huckabee’s most recent debate performance.

The Koch network also buys influence over curriculum, personnel, policy and research by funneling grants with strings attached to schools. For example, a Koch foundation grant to Florida State University required veto power over candidates for professorships the grant funded. 

Unkoching education

But a counter-movement is gaining strength among college students through campaigns such as UnKoch My Campus, which called for a national day of action against the corporatization of education on Nov. 5.

In a day of action last November, demonstrations took place on about 30 campuses. This year, students on 50 campuses planned to publish op-ed pieces for campus papers, lobby administrators and faculty to take a pledge to refuse income from special interests, planned sit-ins and teach-ins and filed open records requests demanding disclosure of Koch interests in their schools.

UnKochMyCampus.org maintains a “Koch heat map” designating schools that have received Koch funding. In Wisconsin, in addition to UW-Madison, Koch-related funding has gone to UW-Eau Claire, UW-Green Bay, UW-La Crosse, Lakeland, Wisconsin Lutheran, Carthage College and Beloit College.

Across the country, about 400 post-secondary schools need to be “unkoched,” according to UnKoch My Campus and Greenpeace, an environmental group that monitors Koch efforts encouraging academics to deny climate change.

Greenpeace says the number of universities receiving Koch funds has skyrocketed from just seven in 2005. A report from the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative news organization, released in late October and based partly on an analysis of IRS filings, found Koch-led charitable foundations contributed $19.3 million donated to 210 colleges in 46 states in 2013.

Koch and college football:

Koch Industries kicked off the football season on Sept. 12 with a sponsorship of the Southern Methodist University game against North Texas. On Sept. 19, Koch sponsorships included Oklahoma State against University of Texas-San Antonio, University of Arkansas against Texas Tech, University of Oklahoma against Tulsa and Texas A&M against Nevada.

Koch put its brand on games between the University of Nebraska and Southern Mississippi on Sept. 26, Iowa State and the University of Kansas on Oct. 3, University of Kansas and Baylor on Oct. 10, and University of Houston and Vanderbilt and University of Wisconsin and Rutgers on Oct. 31.