A Naming Rights Thanksgiving

Last week, on Thanksgiving Day, all Americans gathered to honor our nation’s forefathers. Even Charlie Brown and his Peanuts friends came together to commemorate the first turkey dinner that was shared by our European and Indian ancestors.

Thankfulness, however, was not foremost on the minds of the students of Princeton University. They continued to demonstrate for the removal of the name of American President (and former University President) Woodrow Wilson from their School of Public and International Affairs.

Why remove the name of Wilson from the University’s government program? In other words, why stop giving thanks to the man who led America to victory in the First World War, i.e. the war to make the world “safe for democracy”?

Apparently, the students are protesting against Wilson’s history of blatant and virulent racism. A fervent believer in racial segregation, Wilson aggressively utilized his power as America’s President to deny rights to African Americans.

But he did win the war that made the world safe for democracy. So should Princeton continue to utilize its naming rights to thank him for protecting global principles of self-government, while simultaneously condemning his racist legacy?

This naming rights conundrum has surfaced in many other human endeavors as well. In professional baseball, for instance, when the owners of the New York Mets sold the naming rights of their park Shea Stadium to the global bank Citigroup, they moved William Shea’s name to a meager pedestrian foot bridge.

Who was William Shea? He was an attorney who helped apply competitive pressure to major league baseball to create new teams. When the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants left the Big Apple for California, Shea led a group of business and political leaders that forced the National League to accept the Mets as a replacement franchise.

In gratitude, the owners of the fledgling Mets team named their new ball park Shea Stadium. But four decades later, when Citigroup offered the Mets $400 million for naming rights to the park, the team accepted the money and transferred William Shea’s moniker to a modest walkway.

Nevertheless, even while the Mets played in Shea Stadium, very few fans recalled the identity of its namesake. And likewise, few Americans still remember the name of William Bradford, the leader who ensured the survival of the Pilgrim colony, and who presided over the first Thanksgiving meal.

So if Woodrow Wilson, William Shea, and William Bradford ever meet in the afterlife to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday, they might agree on one conclusion. When descendants wish to honor the accomplishments of their forefathers, it would be unwise for them to rely on naming rights to convey their appreciation in perpetuity.