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Isn’t It Time to Stop Subsidizing Sports Teams That Practice Racism?

Professional teams that discriminate against coaches, players and others shouldn’t be getting taxpayer money that would be better spent on the real problems that need more public funding.

Former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores.
Former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores.
(David Santiago/Miami Herald/TNS)
I appreciate the game of football as much as anyone and attended college on a football scholarship. But I have come to the conclusion that local governments should no longer offer hefty subsidies to professional sports teams that deliberately discriminate against minority players, coaches and potential owners. When former Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores filed a class-action lawsuit against his former team and others, he blew the lid off the pot.

Among Flores’ allegations are that in 2019 team owner Stephen Ross offered him a $100,000 payment per loss if he threw games, presumably to better the team’s chance of obtaining a higher draft pick for the upcoming season. Ross denies this. Flores also said that the so-called Rooney Rule, which requires that National Football League teams interview at least a specified number of minority coaches before they offer a position to a white coach, is a sham. The allegations are ugly, and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell promises to investigate and, if he finds wrongdoing, to take appropriate action.

We’ll see how that turns out. Meanwhile, local officials are left in the lurch of not wanting to run off teams that their governments have invested heavily in and may be getting some positive economic or marketing benefit from, while at the same time not wanting to stand by and effectively embrace or turn a blind eye to racism and institutional discrimination.

Some data points document how bad the situation is with coaches of color not being hired: While African Americans constitute approximately 60 percent of all NFL players, there are now only two Black coaches, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Mike Tomlin and the Houston Texans’ Lovie Smith. (Flores’ successor in Miami, Mike McDaniel, is multi-racial.) And while over 70 percent of the players are nonwhite, only one head coach, the Washington Commanders’ Ron Rivera, is Hispanic, while the New York Jets’ Robert Saleh is of Lebanese descent. It is not logical to believe that, with all the star players of color and the coaches who have found success as offensive and defensive coordinators, the NFL can find so few qualified head coaches of color.

There are public officials and residents alike who believe that government should not tell private businesses what to do or whom to hire. I don’t subscribe to this view. For one thing, local governments that host sports franchises pour hundreds of millions of dollars into building stadiums for billionaire owners in the form of tax abatements, infrastructure improvements and more, under the theory that the teams will generate even more millions in tax revenues. Yet studies going back at least a quarter-century have concluded that they rarely generate the windfall owners promise.

Beyond this, public officials, and certainly those who are elected, are called into service to be more than caretakers for their communities. They are expected to be leaders who have the courage to speak out for values and practices that are in the public interest, that serve the greater good. They have a moral imperative to use their bully pulpits to make their communities better than what they inherited.

Toward this end, public officials should ask themselves this: Is it all right for professional team owners to treat athletes, even if some are paid handsome amounts to compete, like human chattel? Take, for example, Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers’ former Super Bowl quarterback who became a symbol of the dangerous, angry Black athlete when he took a knee during pregame performances of the national anthem to protest police brutality. For this he was, in effect, banned from the sport that he loved. Was this right? A few days ago, Brian Flores was hired by the Steelers, but as a linebackers coach, and he continues to pursue his lawsuit. After he filed it, Flores had said he was prepared to never coach again but that his conscience would not let him just take the money and remain quiet as the Dolphins’ head coach while racism was running rampant throughout the league.

This leads to the main question: What should public officials do? First, I believe they must admit to themselves that the teams that play in their cities and counties have a huge problem with racial discrimination. Then they should insist, and have written into binding agreements, that for teams to receive any kind of public assistance they must adopt the same nondiscriminatory policies of hiring and purchasing that governments are supposed to abide by.

Next, state and local governments should reserve the right to audit the financial records of professional teams that they offer financial incentives to. After audits of the companies they contract with, governments sometimes find millions of dollars owed to them. They also discover that some firms do not meet their goals for minority hiring and purchasing. Reserving the right to examine records not only helps to deter wrongdoing; it also ensures accountability and transparency.

Finally, given how tight some local governments’ budgets are today, it might be time for them to stop subsidizing the construction of privately owned stadiums altogether, a practice that dates back to the 1950s. On the surface, and from a capitalist perspective, it may seem anti-competitive to stop the subsidies, but long-term it is probably not good public policy to risk public money on nonessential services like sports and entertainment venues. The average resident can’t afford a ticket to a professional football game anyway.

Given the history of professional football, how long NFL franchises have received subsidies from governments, and the fierce competition to keep a professional team from bolting to another city, it might seem unlikely that public officials would even consider withholding public support to keep or attract professional teams to their communities. But at their core, our budgets and policies reflect our values. Do governments exist to serve the public interest or not?

With COVID-19 still killing thousands of Americans every day, and amid our ongoing problems with homelessness, crime and struggling public education — all areas that need more funding — it seems wrong that we continue to subsidize billionaire owners who don’t need this public assistance and who are still discriminating today against players and coaches of color.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
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