Is Trump Right About NFL Tax Breaks? Fact-Checking the President’s Latest Attack

Donald Trump launched into a new tack in his battle with the NFL on Tuesday morning, demanding the league’s “massive tax breaks” be taken away if its players keep protesting during the national anthem.

“Why is the NFL getting massive tax breaks while at the same time disrespecting our Anthem, Flag and Country? Change tax law!” Trump tweeted. In another tweet, posted late on Monday evening, Trump had praised Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones for stating that he would not tolerate kneeling while the “Star-Spangled Banner” plays before NFL games.

It’s all part of the long-running dispute Trump has been engaged in with the NFL since he told a rally in Alabama on September 22 that NFL players should be “fired” if they knelt during the anthem. The practice has caught on since it was started by Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, at the start of the 2016-17 regular season in protest at police brutality against black people in the U.S.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell called Trump’s comments “divisive,” while Trump has continued to retaliate by taking jabs at the league’s television ratings. On Sunday, Vice President Mike Pence left the game between the Indianapolis Colts and San Francisco 49ers at Lucas Oil Stadium early after around 12 49ers players kneeled for the anthem. Trump said in a tweet later on Sunday evening that he had asked Pence to walk out if more protests occurred.

Trump’s latest angle of attack represents a fresh direction for the president; before Tuesday, he had never criticized the league for its tax affairs. And perhaps that should have remained the case. While the league has attracted criticism for using public money for new stadiums—a March 2017 ESPN article said new stadiums and renovations to old ones since 1997 cost the taxpayers $6.7 billion, including the Oakland Raiders’ upcoming transition to Las Vegas, which will come in at almost $1 billion—it has moved in recent years to close up one tax loophole. As fact-checking website Snopes.com explained, the NFL’s tax-exempt status prior to 2015 applied only to the league central office, which handles the administrative side of the game. The 32 teams themselves, private organizations, all pay tax as normal. Anyway, in 2015, the league office voluntarily gave up its tax-exempt status.

If Trump was making a point about using taxpayers’ money for shiny new billion-dollar arenas, he might have a point. The NFL may have many questions to answer, but its teams do pay taxes. As The New York Times pointed out, any change to the way the NFL pays tax would be “more about symbolism than impact.” Trump, of course, spent in the region of $250,000 flying Pence to Indianapolis on Sunday, apparently to make a political statement. As Business Insider noted, he also stands accused of wasteful spending of taxpayer dollars for that incident. The president’s latest attack on the NFL was not an entirely successful one.

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