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LA's Coliseum, Built As A War Memorial, Is Getting A Corporate Sponsor. Some Veterans Are Protesting

Libby Denkmann / American Homefront
Air Force veteran Thom O'Shaughnessy opposes the renaming of the L.A. Memorial Coliseum. 'You don't see the name of a corporation in front of Valley Forge or Gettysburg,' he said.

Similiar debates have played out elsewhere, as sports stadiums that were originally built as memorials to veterans take on new corporate names.

To help fund a $300 million makeover of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, where the University of Southern California and the NFL's Rams play, USC announced last year it would rename the stadium "The United Airlines Memorial Coliseum."

But not everyone is happy about the name change, which has drawn increasing public attention in recent weeks.

That's because when the stadium opened in 1923, the Coliseum was dedicated to L.A. County's World War I veterans. It was later rededicated to all who served in the "Great War."

"This is a memorial and not just a sports arena," said Thom O'Shaughnessy, who is among the Los Angeles veterans asking USC to renegotiate the $69 million naming deal. "You don't see the name of a corporation in front of Valley Forge or Gettysburg."

The renaming has taken on additional significance because the Coliseum will be the home of the 2028 summer Olympic games. It will be the third Olympics held at the historic stadium, which also hosted the 1932 and 1984 games. The venue also has hosted two Super Bowls, a World Series, and appearances by Martin Luther King, Jr., Pope John Paul II, and six U.S. presidents.

O'Shaughnessy, chair of the L.A. County Veterans Advisory Commission, saw some of that history himself. He recalls skipping Catholic school in 1960 and coming to the Coliseum for the Democratic National Convention that nominated John F. Kennedy.

The stadium was packed, but he squeezed into a spot where he could hear the speeches.

"I was able to stand in the back as a young high school student, watching Kennedy get the nomination," he said.

O'Shaughnessy testified at a recent meeting of the Coliseum Commission, the public body that oversees the stadium, arguing against the name change.

"When we have the third Olympics being held here. It needs to be held at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum," O'Shaughnessy said. "This is a trust both moral and legal in perpetuity. And perpetuity has no sunset."

USC responds to increasing criticism

The head of the Coliseum Commission - L.A. County Supervisor Janice Hahn - also has become a vocal critic of the renaming.

"This venue was dedicated to the Los Angeles boys who marched off to World War I and never came home," Hahn said.

Critics point out that though USC controls the naming rights to the Coliseum, the arena was built with public funds and is owned by the city, county, and state.

But in recent years, under public control, the Coliseum fell into disrepair. In 2013, USC signed a 98 year lease and announced the naming deal last year. At the time, it didn't make much of a splash.

During lease negotiations, USC and the Coliseum Commission were on the same page about maintaining a tribute to servicemembers, USC senior vice president emeritus Todd Dickey said recently on KPCC.

"They were very concerned, as were we, about honoring veterans," he said.

It was agreed that "Memorial" would stay in the name, but the rest was for sale to fund repairs.

"And now we have actually built the stadium and spent the money. And now the commission is changing the rules that they imposed on us, that we followed exactly," Dickey said.

Still, USC has indicated it is willing to listen and modify the agreement, with a key caveat: United Airlines has to agree to the modifications.

"Through all of this, USC was guided by doing the right thing for the community and preserving and restoring the coliseum as a memorial to veterans of World War I," the school said in a statement. "USC will continue to be guided by its longstanding commitment to the community."


In memorium

When the Coliseum opened, the country was reeling from a staggering 116,000 casualties in the first World War.

Communities were searching for the appropriate way to remember the dead. Some chose statues, others wanted to maintain "living memorials." The idea of a Los Angeles Memorial Hospital was floated, said Courtland Jindra with the California World War I Centennial Task Force. But Los Angeles officials thought the growing metropolis needed a major venue.

"It kind of all culminated into 'well, let's have a Memorial Stadium that we could have civic functions at as well as sporting,'" Jindra said.

The USC Trojans played their first football game in October of 1923, soon after the Coliseum opened.

Nowadays, as sports complexes regularly take on corporate names, those originally intended as memorials to military veterans present a public relations challenge.

Chicago was forced to drop plans to pursue a naming rights deal for Soldier Field after the September 11 attacks. The Chicago Bears NFL team has more recently saidit would be open to a naming deal.

Earlier this year, Jacksonville, Fla. proceeded with plansto attach the name of a local credit union to its Veterans Memorial Arena - after the sponsor agreed to provide ticket discounts to veterans and help fund local veterans programs.

Compromise is possible, if United agrees

Supervisor Hahn says the best resolution in Los Angeles would be a compromise - something like, "The United Airlines Field at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum."

It's a mouthful, but Hahn argues "it will honor the veterans and honor this stadium for the reason it was dedicated."

USC has a new president, Carol Folt, and the school may be looking to turn a page after several scandals. The time may be ripe for a new bargain, Hahn suggested.

"I think it's a new start for USC, and I think it's an opportunity for everyone to get some much-needed good will," she said.

United Airlines, however, seemed to pour cold water on the idea in a letter to USC in March. The company said it was prepared to pull out of the deal if the original agreement isn't honored.

And USC's Dickey estimated naming rights for the field would be worth 30-40 percent less than the existing agreement to rename the entire stadium.

Mediation between the parties began April 8 and is still underway.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Libby Denkmann is KPCC's veterans and military reporter. She focuses on stories about active duty service members, veterans, and their families in Southern California.