Pres­i­dent has one thing right about the NFL: It gets too much tax­payer fund­ing

Woonsocket Call - - Opinion - By NEIL DEMAUSE DeMause is a Brook­lyn-based jour­nal­ist and co-au­thor of the book "Field of Schemes."

If any­one was won­der­ing what it would take to get Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump to en­dorse a pol­icy pro­moted by Pres­i­dent Barack Obama, we now have our an­swer. On Tues­day morn­ing, Trump blasted the In­ter­net with the mes­sage: "Why is the NFL get­ting mas­sive tax breaks while at the same time dis­re­spect­ing our An­them, Flag and Coun­try? Change tax law!"

As with most of the pres­i­dent's twothumbed pol­icy di­rec­tives, suss­ing out the ex­act mean­ing is tough. The NFL vol­un­tar­ily gave up its tax-ex­empt sta­tus two years ago to keep its in­ter­nal fi­nan­cials a se­cret, so that's not it. More likely, Trump was re­fer­ring to the use of tax-ex­empt gov­ern­ment bonds to help fi­nance NFL sta­di­ums, some­thing other an­them-lov­ing GOP elected of­fi­cials have been call­ing at­ten­tion to of late.

What­ever he meant, it got an im­me­di­ate re­ac­tion from the NFL, as Com­mis­sioner Roger Good­ell re­sponded within hours with a let­ter stress­ing that "we be­lieve that ev­ery­one should stand for the na­tional an­them" and promis­ing that com­ing weeks will bring a new "in-sea­son plat­form" to ad­dress the is­sue. (He prob­a­bly can't uni­lat­er­ally de­clare a leaguewide pol­icy, be­cause that would re­quire ap­proval of the play­ers union.) If the league suc­ceeds in restor­ing the rou­tine of all play­ers stand­ing be­fore the flag be­fore each game – a prac­tice that dates all the way to, uh, 2009 – pre­sum­ably the pres­i­dent will back down on his threat to the league's bot­tom line.

That would be a shame, be­cause the use of tax-ex­empt bonds for sports sta­di­ums is a prob­lem that goes back to a time when Trump was still a USFL owner su­ing the NFL. The prac­tice, which ef­fec­tively pro­vides sports fran­chises with low-in­ter­est loans at the ex­pense of the fed­eral trea­sury, has cost tax­pay­ers an es­ti­mated $3.2 bil­lion across all pro sports since the turn of the mil­len­nium.

For years, econ­o­mists have com­plained that pro­vid­ing fed­eral tax breaks for sta­dium con­struc­tion is daft pol­icy – it shouldn't mat­ter to the U.S. econ­omy as a whole whether the Raiders play in Oak­land or Las Ve­gas – and Congress even briefly held hear­ings on the mat­ter in 2007. (I got to tes­tify.) But it wasn't un­til Obama took aim at the loop­hole two years back that it started to get na­tional at­ten­tion, though Repub­li­cans in Congress, not will­ing to give him a win on any­thing, made sure to keep the tax breaks in place.

And that sta­dium tax break – if it was what Trump was get­ting at (even his own press sec­re­tary seemed un­clear which pub­lic money he was talk­ing about) – is only the tip of the sportssub­sidy ice­berg. Even at $200 mil­lion a year, the pub­lic cost of tax-ex­empt bonds is dwarfed by the flood of cash flow­ing from state, county and city gov­ern­ments to sports teams. Here are some of the NFL's great­est sta­dium hits:

• At­lanta Fal­cons owner Arthur Blank got $200 mil­lion in state money to­ward his team's new $1.6 bil­lion sta­dium, then snuck in a clause that will net him "close to $700 mil­lion" worth of ad­di­tional tax money over the course of the next 30 years. If the team stays that long, that is: Blank aban­doned his old sta­dium, the Ge­or­gia Dome, be­fore it even turned 25.

• When sales-tax rev­enue that was sup­posed to pay for a new Cincin­nati Ben­gals sta­dium fell short, Hamil­ton County, Ohio, sold off a pub­lic hos­pi­tal to make its pay­ments. And tax­pay­ers there may have more ex­penses in their fu­ture: A clause in the team's lease re­quires the pub­lic to pro­vide for any up­grades that half of other NFL teams have, up to and in­clud­ing a holo­graphic re­play sys­tem.

• New Or­leans Saints owner Tom Benson not only got Louisiana tax­pay­ers to spend $376 mil­lion to ren­o­vate the Su­per­dome, he ar­ranged to be paid an ad­di­tional $18 mil­lion a year for deign­ing to al­low his team to play foot­ball there. His team execs built a 13foot-high statue of Benson for this, as they could well af­ford to do.

If the party in con­trol of Washington re­ally wanted to put an end to all th­ese sta­dium games, it could do so in an in­stant by pass­ing an ex­cise tax on all lo­cal-level sub­si­dies, as Rep. David Minge, D-Minn., pro­posed in 1999, in­stantly mak­ing sta­dium sub­si­dies un­de­sir­able. What's the point of get­ting a wad of cash for your sta­dium if you just have to pay it right back out to the IRS? Minge's bill didn't even make it out of com­mit­tee be­fore it was stymied by sports league lob­by­ists. If there's some­thing to be out­raged about, it's not who chooses to protest how; it's that Congress has the power to nip sports sub­si­dies in the bud, but it never seems to find the back­bone to do it.

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