American taxpayers shelled out billions of dollars to build the stadiums that National Football League players are now using to stage their kneel-down protests of the national anthem.
The players say they have a right to express their displeasure with racism in the U.S. with their protests, but lawmakers say the NFL could be risking its access to the public trough if the team owners don’t get a grip on the situation.
“These protests are spitting in the face of the people who paid for that stadium,” said state Rep. Steve Drazkowski, a Republican in Minnesota, where the NFL’s Vikings team just opened a stadium built with more than $500 million in local and state financial assistance. “It will create buyer’s remorse among the taxpayers.”
With figures adjusted for inflation, Minnesotans will pay out nearly $1.3 billion over the next 30 years for the stadium.
It’s one part of the more than $6.7 billion in public funds taxpayers have shelled out to build 19 NFL stadiums and renovate three others since 1997.
Some of that assistance comes in the form of municipal bonds, which are exempt from federal taxes. All told, federal taxpayers have helped underwrite some $13 billion in bonds to build or renovate stadiums — spanning all sports — since 2000, according to a Brookings Institution study.
Brookings estimated that the federal government has lost as much as $3.7 billion in tax revenue on the bonds, exceeding the $3.2 billion in savings they created for stadium owners.
Those taxpayer costs are always controversial, but the issue has been elevated by the NFL players’ protests.
Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sparked the issue last year when he took a knee during the anthem to protest police brutality against blacks.
The protests really took off this month, though, after President Trump said owners should fire the kneelers.
An estimated 200 NFL players participated in leaguewide protests this past weekend. Some teams — including the Seahawks and Steelers — refused to take the field while the anthem played.
Republican state-level politicians responded by calling for an end to taxpayer-subsidized arenas. Kenneth Havard, a Republican legislator in Louisiana, proposed cutting tax breaks for his local team, the New Orleans Saints. Mr. Havard said Louisiana spent $85 million to repair the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina amid threats that the team would relocate to San Antonio.
“Most Louisiana residents can’t afford to even walk in the Superdome, and these players are protesting a system that is giving them the opportunity to make millions of dollars playing football,” Mr. Havard said.
NFL players earn an average of $1.9 million per year, according to league data. The median salary in the United States is about $44,000, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported.
“These players are earning millions, and the average soldier who is keeping the Superdome from being blown up is only earning about $40,000,” Mr. Havard said. “That is a huge slap in the face to them.”
Spokeswomen for the NFL and its Players Association did not respond to email and phone call requests for comments.
The league ran into problems with Congress over public financing after Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, both Arizona Republicans, revealed that the NFL often charged the Pentagon for moving tributes to U.S. troops during games.
The lawmakers dubbed the practice “paid patriotism” and said 18 NFL teams charged the military, as did 10 Major League Baseball clubs, eight National Basketball Association teams, eight Major League Soccer clubs and six National Hockey League teams.
Congress rushed to adopt legislation prohibiting the military from paying for tributes, and the NFL scrambled to change its policies. After an internal review, the league returned more than $700,000 to the government.
Likewise, the federal tax exemption for municipal bonds used to build stadiums has been a target for years. President Obama sought to end the practice in 2015, but Congress never considered his plan.
Sens. Cory A. Booker, New Jersey Democrat, and James Lankford, Oklahoma Republican, picked up the issue this year, introducing legislation to end the use of bonds to finance stadiums.
A spokesman for Mr. Lankford said interest in the bill was increasing even before the kneel-down protests became widespread.
Proponents of using taxpayer dollars for stadiums insist the projects fuel economic growth. However, Brookings researchers and others who have studied the issue say the investment isn’t worth the return.
“I tend to be skeptical that the benefits are worth all the outrageous subsidies,” said Ted Gayer, one of the Brookings study’s co-authors.
Some politicians have called on Congress to punish the NFL for the kneel-down controversy by stripping it of its limited antitrust exemption. The last time that was threatened was in 2014, when the NFL was dealing with accusations of rampant domestic violence among players.
Mr. Trump hasn’t threatened any federal action but has said he expects NFL owners to deal with the situation. He initially called for players who protested to be fired. On Wednesday, he said the league is “in a very bad box.”
“In my opinion, the NFL has to change or you know what’s going to happen? Their business is going to go to hell,” he said.
At the state level, lawmakers are expressing displeasure with the anthem protests.
Pennsylvania state Sen. Chuck McIlhinney, a Republican, sponsored a resolution condemning the protests. Another Republican, Tennessee Sen. Paul Bailey, issued a statement calling the protests disrespectful.
“I won’t witness the hijacking of pregame ceremonies that disrespect our flag and challenge the honor of any of the men or women who have sacrificed to preserve our freedoms to enjoy these leisure-time activities,” Mr. Bailey said.