Trump takes an interest in the NFL's 'massive tax breaks'

NFL players wait to be introduced to the crowd before playing in a game. (Photo by Mike Blake/Reuters)
NFL players wait to be introduced to the crowd before playing in a game.

Donald Trump recently decided it'd be a good idea to expand the nation's culture wars to include athletes who engage in civil-rights protests. Yesterday, as the Washington Post reported, the president took the conversation in a very specific direction.

President Trump on Tuesday escalated his tirades against the NFL in an ongoing controversy over players who kneel to protest racial injustice, questioning tax breaks for professional football and attacking an ESPN commentator who has been critical of him and the league."Why is the NFL getting massive tax breaks while at the same time disrespecting our Anthem, Flag and Country? Change tax law!," Trump wrote in an early morning tweet.

As a rule, I don't much care about the eagerness with which the president wants to feud with athletes who hurt his feelings -- though he really should have better things to do with his time -- but Trump's tweet got me thinking. Just what kind of "massive tax breaks" do professional football teams actually enjoy?

Up until a couple of years ago, the NFL was organized as a 501(c)(6) tax-exempt organization, which exempted the league from taxes on some of its activities. Some congressional Democrats, most notably Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.), made the case in 2015 that it was time to take that benefit away.

At the time, Democrats weren't concerned with athletes who took a knee in opposition to systemic racism, but rather, a series of NFL controversies stemming from players accused of domestic violence, the league's lax response to the allegations, and the Washington team's racially inflammatory name.

Their efforts had an effect. Hoping to avoid a prolonged fight, the NFL announced in April 2016 that it was giving up its tax exemption, forfeiting an estimated $109 million in tax breaks. (That may sound like a considerable chunk of change, but it's worth remembering that professional football in the United States is a $9 billion enterprise.)

Of course, if the league has already abandoned its tax-exempt status, what "massive tax breaks" is the president talking about? The Washington Times  added:

The White House said Tuesday the NFL should respect the U.S. flag and the national anthem because numerous football stadiums have been built with the help of taxpayers.White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said "billions of taxpayer dollars" have subsidized the construction of stadiums around the league with state and local tax breaks.

In an interesting twist, there's some truth to this. The NFL doesn't receive tax incentives for new stadiums, but individual teams do, and it's a bit of a racket. In fact, the Obama administration tried to take steps to curtail the problem a couple of years ago, before running into resistance from congressional Republicans.

If the Trump White House wanted to pick up where Obama left off, and scale back tax breaks for new stadiums, I imagine the Republican administration would find quite a few Democratic allies -- regardless of the offensive motivation behind the president's interest in the subject.

None of this is likely to happen, of course. Trump was probably just popping off based on some random segment he saw on television. But there is a meaningful policy issue here that the president could take an interest in -- if he were the kind of official who took substantive questions seriously.