Tuesday night in Philadelphia, the civic shrine on South Broad Street is going to be lit. The arena should be packed with 21,000 fanatics who’ll be screaming their heads off before the first notes of the “Star Spangled Banner,” ready to explode at the first Ben Simmons slam or soaring rejection by Joel Embiid, with the 76ers on the brink of beating the Heat and winning their first playoff series after six long years in the NBA wilderness.
The Wells Fargo Center will be rocking.
And it shouldn’t be that way.
Wait, wait, before anyone jumps all over me, that’s no knock on our beloved basketballers. I just don’t understand why Philadelphia’s indoor sports cathedral is still named for a megabucks bank that epitomizes every worst excess about American capitalism in the 21st century, which has dinged its middle-class customers again and again and again like some cheap racket run out of the back room of a Brighton Beach “social club.”
The latest scam for which Wells Fargo Bank was caught red-handed by federal regulators is one of the more outrageous. The company — which has a sordid recent history of profiting from unnecessary fees — was caught adding car-insurance costs for leaseholders who already had adequate insurance and didn’t need more. For some working-class Americans living from paycheck to paycheck, the added dollars were the last straw. The government estimates that some 27,000 people watched the repo man come and take away their wheels, often their only way to get to a job — all for a scam that fed the massive vampire squid of Wells Fargo profits.
The Trump administration — including the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the post-2008-crash agency that Team Trump wants to suffocate — last week slammed Wells Fargo with a record $1 billion — with a “b” — fine for the way it’s treated its customers. The penalty was not just for the car-insurance scheme but other practices like charging customers fees to extend the lock-in period on home mortgages, even when the delays were the fault of Wells Fargo, and even for several years after the bank’s own internal auditors had flagged that practice as wrong.
At the start of the 21st ventury, the author Barbara Ehrenreich produced a tome called Nickled and Dimed that described how expensive it can be to be a poor person in modern America. It turns out she may have also been describing the business model for Wells Fargo, which creatively and immorally set new low standards to hitting up the middle class to post billion-dollar profits for its wealthy shareholders and bankrolling its $17.4-million-a-year CEO Timothy Sloan (which is 291 times the median Wells Fargo worker, who makes less than the industry average).
In 2016, Wells Fargo was fined $185 million (that seemed like a lot, before last week) for a brazenly fraudulent scheme in which bank employees — under pressure to boost the bank’s profitability — opened credit cards in customers’ names without their permission, even creating fake emails and sham accounts to further the scheme. That’s appalling, but it’s just one of many times that Wells Fargo has been accused of conduct bordering on the unconscionable. Just last year, the city of Philadelphia sued Wells Fargo claiming that nonwhite customers were steered into higher-cost mortgages, thus violating the 1968 federal Fair Housing Act that was passed the week after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis.
It’s important to note that Wells Fargo has denied that and is fighting the lawsuit. Big banks, like everyone else, are entitled in our system to their day in court. That said, the level of misconduct that the bank has already admitted to, and apologized for, again and again is staggering. In the big picture, the American kakistocracy isn’t well equipped to punish an elite wrongdoer like Wells Fargo. Case in point: The tax giveaway enacted at the end of the year by the billionaire-besotted Congress and President Trump benefits Wells Fargo in a huge way — a $3.7 billion tax break, according to some estimates — that more than outweighs any penalties for its sins.
Think about it. How corrupt do you have to be for both the Trump administration and the City of Philadelphia — which also yanked its payroll business from Wells Fargo last year — to consider you unethical? Yet Wells Fargo still chugs along, even with warnings that investigators may come up with more bad practices. What’s the everyday consumer to do? For one thing, customers might want to rethink parking their money with this vampire squid that treats people like plankton. But it’s still so grating that our popular sports teams do their business under a neon nameplate to these serial grifters.
The whole naming situation at the Building Currently Known as the Wells Fargo Center has been a running joke for two decades — a monument to the follies of modern capitalism. It’s been called, in just 22 years, the CoreStates Center, the First Union Center (not to be abbreviated), the Wachovia Center and finally the WF Center. That’s because stable, well-run companies rarely put their names on arenas — instead it’s the worst profit-chasers desperate to get their name out there before would-be customers or day traders, who inevitably go under or get swallowed by the bigger fish. Meanwhile, I’ve noticed that at some point KYW just started calling it “the Center” and at least for a while the Sixers also weren’t calling it the Wells Fargo Center, presumably because they don’t like the bank. So why even continue this farce?
The original naming-rights deal for the Center was for less than $2 million a year, the cost of a backup power forward. Given the latest scandal, the arena’s owner — Comcast Spectacor — should look at its contract for an escape clause because frankly, the money isn’t worth the embarrassment of the Wells Fargo name. My hunch, though, is that Comcast Spectacor isn’t temperamentally inclined to make such a bold move. That means the city that produced great patriots like Benjamin Franklin, Betsy Ross and Octavius Catto is stuck with a massive monument to vulture capitalism.
What can be done?
Here’s my thought: We, the people, don’t have a contract with Wells Fargo. Neither does the free press here in the Cradle of Liberty. We can call the Center whatever we damn please. How great would it be to have a citywide contest — with the participation of our newspapers, radio stations, and spunkier civic leaders — to rename the Center for a real hero, from a place that’s given the world so many of them? Imagine the 76ers and Flyers thrilling their fans in an arena named for one of our amazing athletes — like Hal Greer, an icon who just passed last week — or great citizens of yesterday, like Leon Sullivan or Smedley Butler or Marian Anderson.
It was just 1971 when Philadelphia opened its then-state-of-the-art (heh) ballpark and named it Veterans Memorial Stadium. Was there really such a quaint and nongreedy time? What if today’s Philadelphia paid tribute not to excessive bank fees but the innate goodness of our better-than-average citizens? Imagine a world where Simmons, Embiid and coach Brett Brown hoist aloft the NBA championship trophy on the hardwood at the Officer Robert Wilson III Center.