Can art ever compete with football?


Seattle Seahawks’ Richard Sherman (center left) celebrates with fans during the NFL team’s Super Bowl victory parade in Seattle, Washington Feb. 5. REUTERS/Ben Nelms.

Is there a word stronger than gobsmacked?

I was stunned, disgusted and ultimately saddened to learn today that the National Football League enjoys tax-exempt status. This was news to me, which isn’t surprising given that I’ve never watched a football game in its entirety and was gently chided by an alert editor, recently, when for what may have been the first time ever I used the words Super Bowl in an article, and had to be reminded that it is spelled as two words.

The astonishing exception made for the wildly profitable NFL is being threatened by lawmakers who are trying to force the Washington franchise to change its offensive name to something that doesn’t dishonor Native Americans. But rather than use it as a bargaining chip to coerce the team’s owner, Dan Snyder, to reconsider his adamant position in favor of keeping the ugly name, it seems to me that the tax exempt status should be revoked entirely.

What does this have to do with art? Nothing directly, though the League’s annual budget exceeds the entire budget of the National Endowment for the Arts, and according to an analysis by the non-profit  Sunlight Foundation, NFL players, owners and other officials donated nearly three times as much to Republican candidates (often strident opponents of federal funding for the arts) as Democratic ones in 2012. In a thorough accounting of how the NFL harvests tax breaks and other subsidies, Gregg Easterbrook in The Atlantic called the NFL “one of the most subsidized organizations in American history.”

Republic Senator Tom Coburn introduced a bill last year to strip the NFL of its tax exempt status. In a  USA Today story, Coburn explained his motivation this way: “The [money] that we are giving to that very elite group of people in the front office of these major leagues is money you are paying in taxes to make it up,” he said.

But it’s not about money. It’s about the symbolic statement of our social priorities.

I remember 25 years ago when I was first writing about the arts for newspapers, the NFL was used by editors as a touchstone for what they considered common knowledge in society. Stories about art, classical music or dance rarely made the front page, but football was there every Monday. And that was the natural order of things, because people care about football.

Editors who removed technical language from a music review, or insisted on cumbersome explanations, were unfazed by analogies to the NFL. Of course sport writers don’t have to explain “touchdown” or “line of scrimmage” because people love football. Everyone knows this stuff (though not me, and many more people like me than we commonly acknowledge). The descriptions and explanations and forced “dumbing down” of any discussion of art–which is often far more complex than sport–structured the reader’s expectations. Language kept art contained in the realms of esoterica.

Sometimes it seemed that arts coverage survived only by analogy to professional sports. When editors asked—and periodically the really dumb ones did—why bother reviewing a concert if it was a single-evening event and nobody could get tickets to it after it happened, you would patiently explain to them that it was just like a football game. Yes, it only happens once and it’s over, but people who care about music want to know what happened. It needs to be part of the public record.

Arts writers often stressed the similarity of the local opera company, symphony or art museum to the local football team. It helped created a community, it gave your city a sense of identity, it was a civic institution. Every 10 years or so, when the symphony went on tour, you would beg to go along, and in your unseemly begging you often cited the example of football: We send our sports writers out of town all the time, to every game; so why not send your music writer once a decade to follow the local band as it tours Europe? Occasionally it worked, especially in the good old days when newspapers were flush with cash.

But the analogy glossed over the many substantial differences between a non-profit arts organization and a for-profit sports team. Arts organizations were rarely the beneficiaries of the massive tax relief and direct subsidies it takes to build for-profit team owners new stadiums.

And arts organizations were always much more genuinely “local” than most sports teams. Orchestra musicians or museum curators put down roots in communities, leading middle-class lives fully woven into the warp and woof of the city. Few of them were multi-millionaires, harvesting enormous paychecks from any team that would have them. They would, occasionally, move up the ladder and decamp for bigger cities or more prestigious institutions, but they were never as peripatetic and mercenary as the sports stars.

I can’t think of a single example of an art museum that threatened to pick up sticks and leave town if the local municipality didn’t buy it a new building. And the character, and quality of major civic arts groups is generally more distinctive and lasting—built up over decades—than the yearly ups and downs that determine a sports team’s fortunes in the annual season of play.

Individual NFL teams do pay taxes, and the tax-exemption scheme is complicated, though very lucrative for executives at  the league. Bloomberg Businessweek explains it well:

When Congress granted an antitrust exemption in 1966 that allowed the NFL to merge with the AFL, lawmakers added “professional football leagues” to the statute to ensure the new league would qualify. So while the NFL’s 32 teams bring in a combined $9.5 billion in annual revenue, the league office calls itself a “trade association promoting interests of its 32 member clubs.” This is a bit like McDonald’s (MCD) calling itself a trade association promoting the interests of its 14,000 U.S. restaurants. The key difference is that the NFL distributes all its revenue back to the teams—after covering expenses such as rent, officiating crews, and Commissioner Roger Goodell’s $30 million salary.

Goodell’s reported salary is almost twice the annual budget of the Millwaukee Symphony Orchestra, which has been forced to cut players and plead for money to avoid shutting down after a $2 million budget shortfall in 2013.

Taxing the NFL isn’t going to change the way our society prioritizes its pleasures, or the relative status of art and sports. It won’t make football more or less popular, or increase attendance at cultural events.

But the league’s tax exempt status underscores how the seemingly natural order of our society—we love football and know its intricacies in detail—is built in, structurally, through myriad distortions in the supposedly free marketplace of ideas and desires. The perennial struggle for survival of non-profit arts groups—which enjoy broad tax exemptions—is  often seen as proof of their inherent weakness, their lack of cultural connection, their failure of appeal, when it is in fact a sign of their institutional strength. And football would be much more dynamic and interesting community event if it was run as a genuine non-profit, and ordinary people could afford season tickets.

So let’s not forget all the little incentives, the tax breaks, the give aways, that help dominant organizations maintain their dominance. Power, in our society, is self-re-enforcing.

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.
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Ron Charles · February 10, 2014