If there is a silver lining to President Donald Trump's foolish attempt at bullying National Football League players and team owners via Twitter, it is this: Republicans and conservatives suddenly seem ever so slightly more interested in ending the stream of taxpayer subsidies for billion-dollar football stadiums.
The shift was apparent during a segment of Monday's Fox and Friends, in which Fox News contributor Stuart Varney offered his thoughts on the president's weekend war of words with the NFL over the question of whether players should stand or kneel (or remain off the field entirely) during the playing of the national anthem at the start of games.
Trump's tweets on the matter inflated a handful of players kneeling during the anthem to protest police violence against African Americans into a league-wide show of solidarity against the president.
Varney is against players taking a knee and he somewhat sloppily connected the protests to the fact that almost all NFL stadiums have been heavily subsidized by taxpayers. "Taxpayer subsidies go towards the building of stadiums," Varney said. "There have been 20 new NFL stadiums [built] since 1997. All of them have received a degree of taxpayer subsidies."
A few seconds later, Varney's answer veered into incoherence. He said the NFL should not "bite the hand that helps to feed you," in reference to those same subsidies, and he suggested the league should not "insult taxpayers—whose symbol is the flag, and who you are disrespecting by your actions."
Varney: NFL stadiums have collected over $1B in federal subsidies. My message to the NFL is "don't bite the hand that feeds you." pic.twitter.com/68XjqqRIlh— FOX & friends (@foxandfriends) September 25, 2017
Varney is very wrong about what should be considered an insult to taxpayers, of course. The idea that billionaire owners of professional football teams that rake in hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue every year need assistance from taxpayers is what's insulting. And it's even more insulting when team owners and government officials team up to shovel a bunch of debunked nonsense about "economic development" in front of taxpayers, as if that justifies those subsidies.
Varney obviously needs to work on his argument, but cut him the smallest bit of slack for raising the issue of stadium subsidies on a platform like Fox and Friends, where Trump fans are already upset about what they perceive are the NFL's slights against the president. It's fair to assume most viewers don't know the details of stadium deals—an assumption host Steve Doocey made when he asked, "what do you mean by a subsidy?"—and maybe some will seek out additional information.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., joined the subsidy outrage when he spoke on the House floor this week to denounce the NFL's response to Trump's tweets. "The public pays 70 percent of the cost of NFL stadiums," Gaetz said. "In America, if you want to play sports you're free to do so. If you want to protest, you're free to do so, but you should do so on your own time and on your own dime."
Louisiana state Rep. Kenny Havard, R-East Baton Rouge, has called for putting an end to the estimated $165 million in tax breaks that flow annually to the New Orleans Saints, The Washington Post reports.
Libertarians have long been opposed to stadium subsidies. But until recently there was little mainstream criticism from either the right or the left. That's starting to change. On the left, populist, progressive movements have become a larger part of the Democratic coalition, particularly in cities. That helps to explain why city councils in places like St. Louis, San Diego, and Oakland have stood up to pro football teams threatening to leave town if they don't get shiny, expensive new stadiums.
On the right—where, you know, caring about fiscal matters is supposed to be more important—there's been some grassroots opposition to stadium deals. Conservative groups recently killed a minor league stadium deal in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., for example.
But you also have big dollar Republican donor Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas casino magnate, playing an instrumental role in the largest such subsidy ever given to an American sports franchise, a $750 million taxpayer contribution for the Oakland Raiders to move into a new stadium in Las Vegas.
Conservatives upset about the NFL's refusal to bend the knee to Trump on the anthem issue might redirect some of that fury at the NFL's raiding of their wallets.
Taxpayer subsidies for stadiums is increasing at a staggering pace. An ESPN analysis earlier this year found that five teams built new stadiums between 1997 and 1999 with combined public contributions of $873 million, or about $120 million more than the Las Vegas stadium. The analysis determined taxpayers had spent $5 billion on 16 new NFL stadiums built (or to-be-built) between 2000 and 2020.
Trump's Twitter spat with the NFL might mean more conservatives eye the league with skepticism. They might be doing it for reasons with which libertarians don't necessarily agree—stand, kneel, or do whatever you want during the anthem! But any more attention on wasteful, unnecessary stadium subsidies is a victory, if unintentional.