Did Warriors’ Decision Doom Commercial-Free Schools?

The Golden State Warriors’ iconic blue-and-yellow insignia is the centerpiece of the freshly painted basketball courts at Willie Brown Middle School. (Jessica Christian)

If the Golden State Warriors getting the go-ahead to splash their logo at a middle school in the Bayview is any indication, ad-free public schools could be a thing of the past in San Francisco.

For almost two decades, the San Francisco Unified School District has fought back against corporate advertising, banning brand names and shooting down most investors who want to put logos on their contributions to the school district. But with state funding waning, the school district is doubling down on its efforts to reel in private donors, meaning there will likely be more pressure on the school board to once again allow logos and brand names on campuses.

Last week, the Board of Education opted to play ball with a billion-dollar enterprise seeking to stamp its insignia around Willie Brown Middle School when it lifted an advertising ban that has been in place since the turn of the century.

With tall windows that provide million-dollar views of San Francisco from a hill in the Bayview, the brand new, $56 million middle school already features a bust of its former mayor and power broker namesake in its hallway. And now, the school’s exterior basketball court boasts the iconic logo of the Bay Area’s beloved NBA team.

Unlike the team’s arena planned for the nearby Mission Bay, this small-scale Warriors court lacks the traffic concerns, but it has raised plenty of questions around the commercialization of schools.

In the 1990s, public schools across the nation were fair game for a rising tide of advertisers seeking a captive audience. On campus for hours on end, students ate junk food from vending machines draped in soft drink ads, tuned-in to television commercials in the classroom, and solved textbook math problems featuring brand-name candies.

That changed in San Francisco after 1999, when student protests against tobacco subsidiaries and a heated debate around exclusive pouring rights for soft drink companies prompted the school board to impose the advertising ban.

Proponents of the ban argued that students should not have to look at advertising when they have no choice, especially ads that promote unhealthy foods or lifestyle choices. Neither of those may be the case with the Warriors, but the decision to let the team place its logo around Willie Brown Middle School could set the stage for future brands interested in marketing to a captive audience.

Over the last three fiscal years, the district has tripled the amount of private contributions it received, reaching $13.7 million in 2015-16. Last year, the SFUSD created a nonprofit wing to cull investors and has thus far brought in $6 million from Salesforce.com and other donors like the Warriors. The district is also preparing to ask for more donor dollars to refurbish a defunct school near Civic Center to create an arts institute and relocate Ruth Asawa School of the Arts.

“That project will require significant private philanthropy, and donors who give millions to projects like this rightly expect to have their contributions acknowledged in some kind of public and permanent way,” school board member Rachel Norton writes on her blog.

But Superintendent Richard Carranza, who will be leaving to lead the Houston school district later this fall, says he doesn’t believe lifting the ad ban for the Warriors is indicative of the school district’s future.

“There are some things that we’re going to say, ‘That’s OK,'” Carranza says. “We’re not going to plaster Warriors logos over every school.”

Still, the Warriors decision is a diversion from the usual unwillingness of the school board to allow marketing in its campuses.

A yogurt company was previously allowed to advertise and sell its products from vending machines in the district because the yogurt aligned with healthy food standards. But when Nike contributed materials in 2005 to build a track at one high school in the city, the school board forbade the company from putting its signature Swoosh in the middle of the field. The school board also wouldn’t allow products in textbooks, unhealthy foods in vending machines or shrink-wrap ads on school busses following the landmark 1999 Commercial-Free Schools Act.

Though the Warriors are a corporate enterprise, Carranza says he doesn’t consider it commercialization for them to place their mark on Willie Brown, since the team has been a consistent partner of the school.

“They’re not trying to sell tickets,” Carranza says, pointing to the fact that students are already part of the team’s fanbase. Just like with the San Francisco Giants during baseball season, students are decked out in Warriors gear when the team is playing.

Mayor Ed Lee’s experience at a Potrero Hill elementary school Monday is one salient example of this. When touring a second-grade class on the first day of school at Bryant Elementary School, most of the students huddled together on a rug didn’t know who the mayor is.

But when Lee joked he was Stephen Curry, they knew that wasn’t the case. (One pigtailed girl shook her head in disagreement.)

“It’s really about sports in this community,” Carranza says.

Few details of the relationship between the Warriors and the SFUSD are known. But Carranza’s reasoning for why they allowed the Warriors could expose the district to future exploitation.

Josh Golin, executive director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, says the Warriors exemption undermines “one of the nation’s strongest commercialism policies.”

“I would expect the Board to [be] flooded with other requests from schools to brand their buildings,” Golin writes in an email. “And once schools have already cut deals and the money is tantalizing close, it will be difficult for the Board to say no.”

Where will it end? If the school board allowed the Warriors to stamp Willie Brown, will it allow another professional sports team to hang its flag at a school after making a contribution? Will Coca-Cola be allowed to rebrand the vending machines if it donates big money to the new arts center? What about Big Tobacco?

That has yet to be seen. But at last week’s meeting, school board members agreed to consider implementing a donor recognition policy that will govern future decisions in light of the Willie Brown kerfuffle.

It’s worth noting that the decision to exempt the Warriors was a compromise stemming from a nuanced discussion. The logo on the court’s surface was approved, but whether the team could also plaster its name on the backboards was sent to a board committee for further review.

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