The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Republicans suggest cutting off NFL’s tax breaks in wake of player protests

Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook (33) tries to get by New Orleans Saints linebacker A.J. Klein (53) on Sept. 11 in Minneapolis. (Jim Mone/AP)

Some Republican lawmakers in red states and Congress are talking about a costly penalty for the wave of civil rights protests by NFL players — slashing tax breaks for sports franchises that once enjoyed bipartisan support.

“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,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz (R), a freshman from Florida’s Panhandle, in a floor speech Tuesday morning. “But you should do so on your own time and on your own dime.”

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Gaetz’s gripe was with the “special breaks” that sports leagues received in the tax code. “Some swamp creature of yesteryear cleverly defined sports leagues as ‘tax-exempt trade organizations,’ ” he said. “The public pays 70 percent of the cost of NFL stadiums. Tax-exempt sports leagues generate nearly $2 billion in revenue.”

Gaetz was just one of several Republicans suggesting that taxpayers were being ripped off if their money subsidized teams whose players knelt during the national anthem to protest racial injustice. In Louisiana, where taxpayers shell out an estimated $165 million in tax breaks for the New Orleans Saints, state Rep. Kenny Havard (R) has asked for the state to cut it off.

“I believe in the right to protest, but not at a taxpayer-subsidized sporting event,” Havard said. “Do it on your own time. There are plenty of disabled children, elderly and veterans in this state that would appreciate the money.”

At the federal level, the NFL’s tax breaks had been controversial for years, cited as a shining example of government waste. In 2015, the league voluntarily gave up tax-exempt status, blaming bad PR and hoping to end a “distraction.”

But the tax exemption could be restored if the NFL asked for it, and it’s just one of many ways that NFL owners have benefited from taxpayers. The Oakland Raiders’ upcoming move to Las Vegas was made possible by a $750 million tax on Clark County residents.