Missouri Rep. Nate Walker of Kirksville had an answer Monday for NFL players who kneel during the national anthem: Consider cuttting off state taxpayer support for the stadiums where they play.
“The NFL could have stopped these protests,” Walker said in a statement, “but chose to indulge its billionaire franchise owners and millionaire players to use public facilities to launch their political agendas.”
Not to be outdone, saluter-in-chief President Donald Trump weighed in Tuesday. “Why is the NFL getting massive tax breaks while at the same time disrespecting our Anthem, Flag and Country?” he tweeted. “Change tax law!”
There is an argument to be made on another day for reducing or eliminating taxpayer subsidies for professional sports facilities, including those in the NFL.
But cutting subsidies in response to stadium protests is wrong. It offends the free-speech rights of players and fans, and it sets the government on a dangerous path of determining what kind of speech is permissible in public spaces.
And it’s hypocritical. Playing the national anthem before a game is a political statement. The government can’t be in the business of supporting some speech while punishing contrary views.
Conservatives know this. For years, they’ve claimed their non-profit groups have been illegally denied tax benefits because the government doesn’t like their message. Viewpoint discrimination, they insist, is improper and illegal.
That applies to sports venues, too.
The NFL’s league office is no longer a non-profit organization — it pays taxes. But federal law allows local and state governments to issue tax-exempt bonds for stadium construction, a provision that has cost the U.S. Treasury $3.7 billion since 2000, according to one study.
But cutting off the subsidy because you don’t like the players’ speech sets a horrible precedent. Are public libraries next? Art galleries? Universities? Parks? The public square?
Kansas City’s Ilus Davis Park, north of City Hall, is often the site of protests and speeches. It includes a Bill of Rights monument. In Trump-world, “disrespectful” speech would mean the end of maintenance money for the park.
Walker’s proposal is equally short-sighted and counterproductive: Non-resident athletes and entertainers will send almost $39 million in taxes to the state treasury this fiscal year, most of it from athletes.
Missouri’s subsidy for the Truman Sports Complex is usually $3 million a year.
The NFL has the ability to police the behavior of its players, subject to collective bargaining agreements. There were signs Tuesday the league office may require players to stand for the national anthem.
That’s misguided and disrespectful of players, but it wouldn’t violate the Constitution.
Cutting off public subsidies because of viewpoints expressed in a stadium would. Talk of doing so should end.