As the old saw goes, if you call the tune, you pay the fiddler ... or maybe the fiddler stops subsidizing you.
That problem is what the New Orleans Saints, and more specifically owner Tom Benson, face in the aftermath of player protests a week ago. At their game in Charlotte, 10 players refused to pay respect to the American flag during the national anthem. Four others straddled the line by standing respectfully next to the seated players, away from others.
A number of players across the National Football League staged similar demonstrations. According to some participants, these responses resulted from President Donald Trump’s negative comments about a handful of players previously exercising free speech in this fashion.
The Advocate editorialized succinctly about these mistaken actions by pointing out the insult this represents and the unwise choice of timing and venue that does not persuade affirmatively but rather obscures the intended message. No matter how many flag stickers you put on your helmet visor, as one of the protesting players did, it doesn’t celebrate a constitutional right when denigrating the Constitution’s ideas through contempt for a banner and song that are emblems of the nation.
While the protesting players may have fooled themselves into thinking they had done something courageous and profound, many in the public saw through them. People perceived it, as The Advocate put it, as a “statement about richly paid athletes thinking too highly of themselves, that they would insult the country that has given them much, and the fans who paid a lot to come for a game.”
In fact, early indications are the act by some Saints did to some fans what decades of losing and heartbreak could not: disgust supporters enough to turn in season tickets and dispose of team gear.
Sports bars in Chalmette and Denham Springs decided they would boycott showing televised games where any Saints protested this way, if not blacking out the entire NFL slate.
Given the rabid nature of support for the Saints — television ratings for the NFL in the New Orleans market annually hover close to tops in the league, even as national ratings have fallen significantly since protesting began last year — the team’s bottom line will not suffer much by the blowback. But a bigger threat looms for Benson and management: Republican state representatives Kenny Havard, of St. Francisville, and Valarie Hodges, of Denham Springs, have called for legislative review of a deal that subsidizes Benson.
Currently, the state rents space in downtown New Orleans from Benson at above-market rates, scheduled to last through 2025. As well, the Saints benefit from a sales tax break and also a rent-free Mercedes-Benz Superdome, where Benson gets to keep all naming rights and game-related revenues. When the deal came together in 2013, Forbes Magazine estimated its lifetime concessions worth $400 million.
Fiscal watchdogs and some elected officials have criticized this and a previous deal that transferred taxpayer money to Benson’s pockets, especially as the state struggles to meet spending needs. This incident has added fuel to the fire and intensified focus on the subsidy. As Havard put it in a written statement, “I believe in the right to protest, but not at a taxpayer-subsidized sporting event. Do it on your own time. There are plenty of disabled children, elderly and veterans in this state that would appreciate the money.”
Regardless of their feelings about players’ expressions, before the next legislative session lawmakers would do well to launch a study on the monetary benefits of Benson’s deal. If these don’t come close to outweighing costs, in 2018 the Legislature and Gov. John Bel Edwards must modify or scrap it.
The National Football League has little to do with justice or equality or whatever sentiment encourages protesters. But we’re now in the mids…