The Latest Lame Defense of the Washington Redskins

The NFL team is not a free-market operation.


The Redskins Pride Caucus—five members of the Virginia General Assembly at this writing—probably will not go down in the annals of Virginia history as the commonwealth's proudest achievement. It looks more like an effort to pick some low-hanging votes. Virginia is Redskins country, after all.

Virginians also don't like the federal government barging in and telling people what to do—except perhaps for those 4.7 percent of Virginians employed by the federal government, in which case never mind.

Still, that was the hook the members of the new caucus largely hung their hats on. They weren't necessarily for or against changing the team name. They simply want to provide a voice for an oppressed and rarely heard-from minority: "Redskins fans and season ticket holders."

They also believe, as a Richmond Times-Dispatch news story summarized, that "the team is a Virginia business that generates millions and needs to be protected to make its business decisions free from government interference." They are miffed at the 50 members of the U.S. Senate who wrote a letter to the NFL urging a change in the team's name. As one of the ringlead—er, one of the caucus initiators, Republican Del. David Ramadan, put it, those senators should "go work on other issues and leave our Virginia businesses alone."

This is a popular position among Virginia politicians. During a campaign debate last year, Gov. Terry McAuliffe said he would not presume to tell any business owner "what they should do with their business." He reiterated the point in an "Ask the Governor" radio interview after he won, telling WTOP, "I don't believe governors should tell private businesses what to do."

Sen. Tim Kaine supports a name change but declined to sign the Senate letter, citing concerns about its tone. Sen. Mark Warner "believes that it's not for Congress to dictate what the league does," an aide has said.

Many might wish to dispute the assertion that the Redskins—never mind the NFL—is a private business. The team raked in $6 million two years ago from Virginia, Loudoun, and Richmond when it agreed to keep its operations here. That's a drop in the bucket for one of the world's richest franchises, of course—but the team benefits indirectly from the many other public advantages conferred by government on the football league.

As Gregg Easterbrook explained in a September piece for The Atlantic on "How the NFL Fleeces Taxpayers," states and localities around the country have shelled out billions of dollars building stadiums for many of pro football's teams: "Just three NFL franchises—the New England Patriots, New York Giants, and New York Jets—have paid three-quarters or more of their stadium capital costs," Easterbrook notes. Some teams actually collect more in stadium subsidies than their stadiums cost.

What's more, the NFL is treated as—seriously, now—a nonprofit, which confers tax-exempt status. It also takes advantage of a congressionally conferred antitrust exemption and special treatment in broadcast negotiations. "When, for example, Fox broadcasts (over public airwaves) a Tampa Bay Buccaneers game from Raymond James Stadium, built entirely at the public's expense, it has purchased the right to do so from the NFL."

But let's table that issue for a moment so we can direct our attention to the sudden and curious outbreak of laissez-faire. While the reticence about telling a private business what it should do is welcome, it certainly comes across as both novel and highly specific.

Neither Warner nor Kaine nor McAuliffe has shown similar scruples about Obamacare, which tells any business of 50 or more employees what it should do about health insurance. Kaine and Warner also favor raising the minimum wage, which tells any business of two or more employees what it should do about wage scales. None of them has been exactly vocal in defense of the idea that government shouldn't tell businesses how to, say, meet the American public's need for energy. It's only when people start debating the name of a sports franchise that concerns about overreach blossom.

What about the members of the Redskins Pride caucus themselves? Ramadan has long championed teleworking tax credits, which tell businesses what government thinks about their telework policies. Democratic state Sen. Chap Petersen has supported legislation requiring insurers to cover autism disorders. Democratic Del. Lionell Spruill voted to tell Virginia restaurants they could not let people smoke inside. Del. Jackson Miller, a Republican, voted to make abortion providers conduct ultrasounds. Democratic state Sen. Louise Lucas wants to restrict the reasons adoption agencies can turn couples down. And so on.

Those are, of course, merely a small sample of the manifold ways in which politicians routinely give instructions to private businesses regarding what they may and may not do. Yet now we are supposed to believe they find giving orders to private business objectionable? C'mon.

The upshot seems to be that the caucus will defend the supposed autonomy of a business that is heavily reliant on government for its well-being, but not that of many lesser-known businesses that are not. Many words could describe such a set of values, but "pride" hardly seems the most fitting.