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The Super Bowl Shame of Roger Goodell

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 31, 2014

Roger Goodell  (Photo: Alex Brandon/Associated Press)

Roger Goodell together with the NFL’s major financial backer (Photo: Alex Brandon/Associated Press)

We are coming into the strange commercial clusterfuck called Super Bowl Weekend.  But maybe I shouldn’t say that name out loud.

The National Football League protects its exclusive right to profit from the words S___r B__l so ardently that even communities that surround the stadium, communities that granted tax relief to make that stadium possible, cannot promote the event by name in their own towns.  The State of New Jersey can barely mention the event being hosted on its soil.  Comedian and Montclair resident Stephen Colbert is calling it Superb Owl Weekend.

This seems like the right occasion to remind everyone that the NFL is a $10 billion a year taxpayer-subsidized nonprofit. Keep this in mind when you are wondering why your town can’t get enough revenue to educate its children, pave its roads, or protect its environment.  That money is ending up instead in the pockets of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and his band of fat cat colleagues.

In case you missed it, journalist Gregg Easterbrook had a great story on “How the NFL Fleeces Taxpayers” in the September Atlantic.  It’s drawn from his book The King of Sports: Football’s Impact on America.  I like the way he personalizes the story, by writing about Goodell as a son who has betrayed his own father’s admirable legacy.

Here’s an excerpt:

In his office at 345 Park Avenue in Manhattan, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell must smile when Texas exempts the Cowboys’ stadium from taxes, or the governor of Minnesota bows low to kiss the feet of the NFL. The National Football League is about two things: producing high-quality sports entertainment, which it does very well, and exploiting taxpayers, which it also does very well. Goodell should know—his pay, about $30 million in 2011, flows from an organization that does not pay corporate taxes.

That’s right—extremely profitable and one of the most subsidized organizations in American history, the NFL also enjoys tax-exempt status. On paper, it is the Nonprofit Football League.

This situation came into being in the 1960s, when Congress granted antitrust waivers to what were then the National Football League and the American Football League, allowing them to merge, conduct a common draft, and jointly auction television rights. The merger was good for the sport, stabilizing pro football while ensuring quality of competition. But Congress gave away the store to the NFL while getting almost nothing for the public in return.

Then Esterbrook starts to home in on Goodell:

Roger Goodell’s windfall has been justified on the grounds that the free market rewards executives whose organizations perform well, and there is no doubt that the NFL performs well as to both product quality—the games are consistently terrific—and the bottom line. But almost nothing about the league’s operations involves the free market. Taxpayers fund most stadium costs; the league itself is tax-exempt; television images made in those publicly funded stadiums are privatized, with all gains kept by the owners; and then the entire organization is walled off behind a moat of antitrust exemptions.

And then the kill:

Perhaps it is spitting into the wind to ask those who run the National Football League to show a sense of decency regarding the lucrative public trust they hold. Goodell’s taking some $30 million from an enterprise made more profitable because it hides behind its tax-exempt status does not seem materially different from, say, the Fannie Mae CEO’s taking a gigantic bonus while taxpayers were bailing out his company.

Perhaps it is spitting into the wind to expect a son to be half what his father was. Charles Goodell, a member of the House of Representatives for New York from 1959 to 1968 and then a senator until 1971, was renowned as a man of conscience—among the first members of Congress to oppose the Vietnam War, one of the first Republicans to fight for environmental protection. My initial experience with politics was knocking on doors for Charles Goodell; a brown-and-white Senator Goodell campaign button sits in my mementos case. Were Charles Goodell around today, what would he think of his son’s cupidity? Roger Goodell has become the sort of person his father once opposed—an insider who profits from his position while average people pay.

Read Esterbrook’s full article here.  And as you are watching and enjoying the S—-r B–l Sunday night, ask yourself:  Isn’t it time for the National Football League to get its hands out of the taxpayer’s pocket and stand, for once, on its own two feet?

2 Responses to “The Super Bowl Shame of Roger Goodell”

  1. I love the NFL because I love football… but it is hard to argue your points. Well done.

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