A few weeks ago, members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce released a report blasting National Football League officials for seeking to manipulate a government study of the link between football and brain disease. According to the 91-page document, the NFL “attempted to use its ‘unrestricted gift’ [of $30 million] as leverage to steer funding away from one of its critics,” the prominent Boston University brain researcher Dr. Robert Stern. These allegations — which league executives denied — came as no surprise to those who claim the league has perpetrated a Big Tobacco-style coverup when it comes to player health.
Widely overlooked amid this squabbling is the fact that the NFL’s decision to withdraw funding for the study stuck taxpayers with yet another football-related bill, this one amounting to more than $16 million. Simply put, the football industry in this country treats taxpayers like tackling dummies. And the beauty of the arrangement — for those who profit from the game, anyway — is that hardly anyone notices.
The most obvious example is that the NFL league office (though not the individual teams) was classified for decades as a nonprofit operation, and thus tax exempt, thanks to some crafty lobbying back in the 1960s. The league — whose revenues are projected to surpass $13 billion this year — finally surrendered this status last year. But it was not because its executives felt morally beholden to pay taxes like the rest of us suckers, but because retaining this nonprofit status required folks like Commissioner Roger Goodell to disclose his eye-popping compensation package ($34.1 million in 2014) and provoked the ire of politicians.
Most of the tax breaks enjoyed by NFL franchises, however, are virtually invisible to the general public. They take the form of sweetheart deals granted to billionaire owners to prevent them from moving to another city. Taxpayers in Louisiana shell out up to $6 million every year to keep owner Tom Benson from marching his New Orleans Saints out of town. That’s a drop in the bucket compared with the cost of rebuilding the Superdome, which drained nearly a billion dollars from the public coffers. Taxpayers footed the bill for everything, down to the leather seats and cup holders, even though Benson keeps almost all the dough generated by ticket sales, concessions, parking, and TV rights. No wonder he’s a billionaire.
This same pattern prevails across the nation, as public monies that might be spent on frivolous endeavors such as early childhood education, low-income housing, or infrastructure are instead earmarked for the serious business of football. In Minnesota, the Legislature voted to allocate $506 million toward building a new stadium for the Vikings, despite facing a budget shortfall of more than a billion dollars.
Nor are the handouts limited to the pro game. College football has become a booming concern, too, one that is quietly underwritten by public funds. The debate about whether so-called “student athletes” should be paid to play misses the larger point: Dozens of public universities have invested millions of taxpayer dollars in football, diverting precious funds from what are supposed to be their central missions: education and research.
It’s true that elite college football programs generate significant revenue. But they also cost millions to operate. At the University of Alabama, the deluxe locker room cost $100 million, while head coach Nick Saban pulls down a CEO-grade $7 million salary.
What goes largely unreported amid the hype around these brand names is the fact that most football programs at public universities actually lose money. Nearly three-quarters of all Division I programs run a deficit, one that has to be covered by rising tuition, student fees, and often — you guessed it — taxpayers.
What’s more, scores of schools have gone deep into the red to finance the building of new stadiums and facilities, all in the hopes of building a football juggernaut. The University of California, Berkeley, for instance, incurred $445 million of debt to renovate its stadium and build a new athletic center.
There is little evidence that going into the football business helps expand academic programs or reduce skyrocketing tuitions. On the contrary, according to sports economist Andrew Zimbalist, students and taxpayers wind up subsidizing the investment — which is why a couple of colleges have shown the good sense to stop chasing the dream.
But the most galling example of football’s financial drain resides in our public high schools, where untold millions are diverted from basic academic expenses — teacher salaries, classroom supplies — to fund athletic spectacle.
There are, of course, educational benefits inherent in sports. But given the impoverished state of so many school districts in this country and the essential role they play in educating our next generation, it’s hard to justify, for example, spending $62.8 million in tax dollars to build a 10,000-seat high school football stadium in the heart of Texas.
There’s no doubt that football brings immense joy and meaning to millions of Americans. For them, such public expenditures may be money well spent.
But those of us who aren’t financially or emotionally invested in the sport need to recognize that football still has a profound impact on our lives. Hundreds of millions of our hard-earned dollars are being diverted from vital social and educational programs to subsidize the beautiful, savage game that has become our national passion.