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As USC's Year Ends, Biq Questions Remain About What Name The Football Stadium Will Have This Fall

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Air Force veteran Thom O'Shaughnessy inside the L.A. Memorial Coliseum. He testified against adding a corporate name to the WWI memorial (Libby Denkmann/KPCC)
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With just days to go in USC's academic year -- commencement is this Friday -- students will be returning in the fall to major renovations, and a major name change at the stadium where their beloved Trojans play football.

To fund a chunk of the $300 million makeover of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, where the NFL's Rams also currently play, USC announced last year it would rename the stadium "The United Airlines Memorial Coliseum." Big improvements are being made ahead of the 2028 Olympics to ensure the historic stadium, which hosted the 1932 and 1984 games, will be up to the task again.

Not everyone is happy about the name change, which has drawn more 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.'

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Veterans groups and some politicians now say renaming the venue disrespects the Coliseum's status as a war memorial.

The L.A. County Veterans Advisory Commission meets Wednesday in Hawthorne and is scheduled to take a formal vote Wednesday on a position opposing the name change, according to commission members.

USC, for its part, has indicated it is willing to listen and modify the agreement, with a key caveat: "If United Airlines is agreeable to that name change and the resulting modification to the naming rights agreement."

School officials have reiterated that they negotiated in good faith and that USC had already made big investments in the stadium under the leasing agreement.

"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 issued this week to LAist, echoing their previous position. "USC will continue to be guided by its longstanding commitment to the community."

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Marine Corps veteran Lamont Duncan, State Commander with VFW California, testified at a March 28 hearing of the L.A. Memorial Coliseum Commission. (Libby Denkmann/LAist)

A PLACE FULL OF HISTORIC MOMENTS

On a recent weekday afternoon at the Coliseum, Thom O'Shaughnessy rolled his wheelchair past sun-dappled stone columns embellished with commemorative plaques honoring L.A. sports legends, politicians and even the Pope. Next to a smiling President John F. Kennedy, The Air Force veteran reminisced about a July day in 1960.

He skipped Catholic school and came right here for the Democratic National Convention.

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

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

O'Shaughnessy's says the "flaky" teenager he was back then didn't quite realize he was watching history unfolding in the crowded arena.

"It was coming home and when other people said, 'oh you got to see him? You got to be down there?' that it sunk in more," O'Shaughnessy said.

Decades later, that once oblivious kid is now the chair of the L.A. County Veterans Advisory Commission.

HOW HE SEES IT

Once inside the stadium, O'Shaughnessy rolls to a position above the east endzone. From this perch O'Shaughnessy can see construction crews busy finishing a new tower with fancy lounges and press boxes -- evidence of hundreds of millions of dollars being poured into Coliseum renovations.

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"United Airlines" branding going up on the historic Memorial Coliseum 'peristyle' that welcomes visitors doesn't sit right with O'Shaughnessy.

He testified at a recent meeting of the Coliseum Commission, the public body that oversees the stadium.

"This is a memorial and not just a sports arena," he said. "You don't see the name of a corporation in front of Valley Forge or Gettysburg."

O'Shaughnessy's among the Los Angeles vets asking USC to renegotiate the $69 million dollar naming deal with the airline. They point out the arena was built with public funds, and is owned by the city, county and state. And the head of the Coliseum Commission -- L.A. County Supervisor Janice Hahn -- 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," she said.

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.

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Plaques inside the L.A. Memorial Coliseum commemorate famous speakers and athletes who appeared at the stadium. (Libby Denkmann/KPCC)

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

"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."

IN MEMORIAM

When the Coliseum opened, the country was still 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.

After years of sacrifice and solemnity, the postwar period was a time for remembrance, but also for cutting loose. College football was capturing the nation's heart.

"The 1920s happens to have been the decade when this commercialization of college athletics really reached a takeoff point," said Jay Smith, professor of history at UNC Chapel Hill.

The decade saw the construction of most of the great stadiums of the 20th century, in places like Oklahoma, Texas, Nebraska, and Illinois.

"All across the cultural landscape, Americans were giving in to their appetites for entertainment," he said. "A rash of stadium building swept across the country."

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Kyle Orlemann, wife and daughter of military veterans, testified against changing the stadium's name to United Airlines Memorial Coliseum. (Libby Denkmann/LAist)

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

And it has since had a storied history -- the site of two Olympic Games, two Super Bowls, presidential speeches, religious revivals, parades and even military exhibitions.

"It makes perfect sense that in the early 21st century there would be big debates about stadium naming rights," Smith said. "Stadiums are important shrines for us."

PR CHALLENGE

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A rendering provided to the L.A. Memorial Coliseum Commission by USC. (courtesy of the L.A. Memorial Coliseum Commission )

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

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

Earlier this year, Jacksonville Florida proceeded with plans to 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.

Portland's neglected Veterans Memorial Coliseum was in danger of demolition just a few years ago. Protests and a historic designation helped save it, and now the city is searching for ways to restore the building.

But many large venues built as living WWI or WWII memorials have met the fate of Baltimore's Memorial Stadium, leveled in 2001 when the city couldn't scrape together enough money for a redevelopment plan. A single memorial wall was initially left standing -- a decision the former Mayor of Baltimore criticized as "awkward" in a blistering op-ed. The surviving wall came down in 2003 and a new memorial was dedicated outside of Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

The low curved wall features words lifted from the imploded Memorial Stadium: "Time Will Not Dim The Glory Of Their Deeds."

COMPROMISE POSSIBLE?

Los Angeles veterans upset about the Coliseum name change have gotten some outside backing.

On a recent presidential campaign swing through L.A., Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard threw her support behind the protest.

Gabbard recently greeted a gym full of veterans on a Saturday morning in Hawthorne with a warm "Aloha" before launching into her 2020 stump speech.

The Hawaii representative is an Army National Guard Major and Iraq War vet.

"I've seen firsthand the cost of war," she said. "There has to be other ways and better ways to provide those refurbishments, to get support from companies or others in the local community, without stripping the name of this historic monument."

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U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) speaks at Veterans Benefits Day at Hawthorne Memorial Center, April 13 2009. (Libby Denkmann/KPCC)

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

Yeah, 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. Representatives for Hahn, United Airlines, and USC were not able to provide a timeline for those talks.

O'Shaughnessy is hopeful veterans' voices will prevail. "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."

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The iconic 'peristyle' on the east side of the L.A. Memorial Coliseum. (Libby Denkmann/LAist)

UPDATES:

10:20 a.m.: This article was updated with the L.A. County Veterans Advisory Commission scheduled vote on Wednesday.

This article was originally published at 7 a.m.