“Why is the NFL getting massive tax breaks while at the same time disrespecting our Anthem, Flag and Country?” Trump wrote. “Change tax law!”
It’s not clear exactly what Trump is pushing for in this tweet. Is he advocating changing the tax laws to punish the NFL for allowing players to protest? That would come with a host of unexpected consequences, both financial and constitutional. Regardless, since the president used the phrase “massive tax breaks,” it’s worth examining what the NFL’s tax status truly is.
One popular misconception holds that the NFL operates tax-free, paying nothing on its billions of revenue. This is simply not true.
For years, the NFL headquarters operated under a tax-exempt status enjoyed by several other professional sports leagues as well as all trade associations, which, in effect, the league office itself is. However, it’s important to note several facts:
• This status applied only to the league office itself, not the individual teams.
• The individual teams pay federal tax on all revenue, from ticket sales to merchandise to sponsorship to broadcast revenue.
• Teams do enjoy significant tax breaks from states and municipalities for, say, stadium construction and operations, but those are largely local issues, not federal ones, and thus outside the president’s direct oversight. (It’s worth noting that municipal bonds issued for stadium construction are free from federal taxes, but simply ending the tax-exempt status on those bonds would, again, have a significant ripple effect on state and local governments and private businesses.)
The NFL opted to change its league office’s status in 2015 in the wake of scandals such as the Ray Rice domestic violence debacle. “The effects of the tax-exempt status of the league office have been mischaracterized repeatedly in recent years,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in a letter to owners in 2015 announcing the change in status. “The fact is that the business of the NFL has never been tax-exempt.”
None of this is meant as a defense of the NFL’s prior tax-exempt status. Why and whether the NFL even deserved that status in the first place is a valid question, but the fact remains: it’s classified across the board as a fully tax-paying entity now. (Here’s a complete, in-depth compilation of facts on the exemption.) NFL teams’ ability to secure tax breaks for billion-dollar stadium construction is another issue worth scrutiny, but again, that’s a complex, state-to-state issue and one the president can’t affect via federal legislative decree.
The NFL does continue to enjoy an anti-trust exemption, as do baseball, basketball, and hockey. This permits the league to act as a monopoly and speak on behalf of all 32 teams when negotiating, say, leaguewide media deals. It’s a luxury that saves leagues tens of millions of dollars in negotiations, among other benefits, and it’s also been the target of congressional oversight on occasion, but that doesn’t appear to be Trump’s focus. Yet.
Trump’s NFL tweet arrived as part of a four-tweet predawn blast that included a shot at Democrats over immigration, a promise to provide health care “with the power of the pen,” and characteristic ratings-based criticism of ESPN’s Jemele Hill, the SportsCenter anchor suspended Monday. Two hours later, Trump promoted a self-help book of his own quotes.
Constitutional scholars and employment lawyers can debate the legal aspects of Trump’s jabs. But whether the NFL/tax tweet rises to the level of, say, government interference in free speech isn’t really the point.
Attacking the NFL continues to be a strategy with low risk and high upside for Trump—his base is firmly behind the repeated criticism of the league and its players, but there’s little real-world consequence no matter how hard he drives the wedge. The NFL isn’t North Korea.
Whether Trump has a specific plan in mind to address the NFL’s tax status doesn’t matter. Nor does the fact that Trump himself is responsible for the large majority of anthem-related controversy over the last three weeks. Like a coach sending five receivers deep, Trump’s simply sowing chaos. And even though teams are weary of the anthem-related, Trump-stoked distractions, they have no choice but to respond. When the president speaks, the nation must pay attention.