Super Bowl

Stop Subsidizing Football

Taxpayers shouldn't be supporting a sport that's giving kids brain damage and shouldn't build stadiums for billionaire NFL owners either.


Jeff Wheeler/ZUMA Press/Newscom

In the sprawling suburbs west of Houston, the newest coliseum to America's favorite sport hosted its first game last week.

Legacy Stadium seats more than 12,000 people in two decks of bleachers that wrap around the side of a gridiron. An HD video board for replays of the action cost $2 million by itself. The final price tag for the whole project was more than $70 million. The most surprising thing of all, perhaps, is that it's not a professional stadium. It's not a college stadium either.

It's the most expensive high school football field in the nation, and it was paid for—every last dime—by the taxpayers of the Katy Independent School District, who approved the stadium as part of a bond package in 2014.

Football is big business in America—from youth and high school levels all the way up to the pros in the National Football League—but the sport benefits from taxpayer subsidies at every level. State and local governments have spent billions of dollars in recent years to build stadiums for pro teams with billionaire owners, and untold millions on stadiums for high school and college teams too. Not all subsidies are so obvious, though, and the feeder system for the NFL relies on a system of high school and college programs that are built largely on the backs of taxpayers.

Taxpayers should not have to support recreational activities of any kind—whether the participants are 17-years-old or earning $17 million a year (an amount some top quarterbacks and wide receivers can command in the NFL)—but they certainly should not be supporting a recreational pursuit that is proven to put young men at risk of serious health problems. There is no longer much doubt that football does that. Just a month before the new Legacy Stadium opened, the most damning evidence linking football to brain damage was published by a researcher at Boston University.

Dr. Ann McKee, a neuropathologist, and a team of researchers at Boston University examined the brains of 111 former NFL players, and found 110 of them had signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E., a degenerative brain disease thought to be caused by repetitive head trauma. It can affect "behavior, mood, and cognitive symptoms" and can cause dementia, according to the researchers.

Now that we know more about the health consequences of playing football, there's an urgent need to reassess the role that governments play in propping up a sport that, even though it remains wildly popular, is undoubtedly causing real harm to many of the young men who play it.

School districts should stop subsiding brain damage in the name of athletics.

The new NFL season will begin Thursday night at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts, when the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots host the Kansas City Chiefs. The season is scheduled to end on the first Sunday in February 2018 at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, the newly built home of the Minnesota Vikings, with the playing of Super Bowl 52.

Bryan Singer/Icon Sportswire 203/Bryan Singer/Icon Sportswire/Newscom

The two locales are a study in contrasts for how Americans subsidize football. Gillette Stadium opened in 2002 and cost about $412 million. The $325 million stadium was built entirely with private money, financed by Patriot's owner Robert Kraft, while the state of Massachusetts kicked in about $72 million for pay for infrastructure upgrades necessary for the construction and operation of the Patriots' home.

In Minneapolis, local and state taxpayers got soaked for more than $500 million of the $1.1 billion price tag on the Vikings new home, which opened last season. Voters didn't get a referendum on whether they wanted to help team owner Zygi Wilf (estimated net worth: $5.3 billion) pay for the stadium, and the local officials who did vote on the new plan got special access to luxury box seats for all events hosted there.

Gregg Easterbook, author of The King of Sports: Football's Impact on America and a longtime critic of taxpayer subsidies for the sport, says taxpayers have covered more than 70 percent of the total cost of NFL stadiums built in the past two decades. There, the tide may be turning. Officials in Oakland, San Diego, and St. Louis have held the line against demands for new, publicly funded stadiums and have watched professional teams leave town in recent years.

Stadium construction costs are the most expensive, most egregious way that taxpayers are forced to subsidize football, but others have also come under scrutiny in recent years. One of the biggest backdoor subsidies for football—the special loophole in the federal tax code that allowed the National Football League, but not any of its smaller competitors, to avoid federal taxes—was eliminated in 2015. A U.S. Senate investigation in 2015 revealed that the Pentagon had paid $5.4 million to NFL teams for so-called "displays of patriotism" during games between 2011 and 2014.

Professional football could survive without those subsidies. Billionaire team owners could afford to pay for their own stadiums—like the Patriot's Robert Kraft did—and other subsidies like the Pentagon's patriotism theater are little more than a rounding error in the NFL's annual revenue stream.

High school football, though, likely would struggle to survive without taxpayer support. Unlike baseball, which relies in part on a system of private youth baseball programs ranging from Little League to American Legion-sponsored teams for older players, or basketball, in which promising young players often play on Amatuer Athletic Union (AAU) teams, football is inextricably tied to America's public school system. That is largely because of the size of teams required for the sport and because of the more expensive overhead in terms of equipment and, increasingly, insurance costs.

How much do taxpayers across America pay each year to support high school football? There is no definitive figure, but Easterbrook, perhaps the foremost authority on the ways in which the public subsidizes football, estimates that the total could be as high as $10 billion.

"If there are 20,000 public and private high schools of which 95% field football teams with a marginal cost of $100,000 per team per season, that's $1.9 billion per year for high school football—plus insurance, a number that's rising fast," Easterbrook wrote in an email to Reason this week. "Add tax subsidies to the private prep schools that exist on the dole, and $3 billion per annum seems reasonable. Add lifetime health harm to teens and educational harm to the 98% of players who receiving no recruiting boost to college (1 in 50 prep player gets a college boost), then poor educational results for the many thousands are distracted from the classroom and don't reach college as a result, and high school football soars into the $5 billion to $10 billion harm per year."

At a time when there is rising skepticism about whether the NFL should continue to be subsidized by taxpayers, that spending deserves scrutiny too. (This doesn't even account for college football, which operates on an entirely different—though also often heavily subsidized—model, depending on the size of the school and the value of its football team.)

If you subsidize something, you get more of it, but even $5 billion to $10 billion annually may not be enough to save football at the high school level.

McKee's research at Boston College is the most damning link yet revealed between playing football and CTE. While 110 out of 111 former NFL brains had evidence of CTE, her research also looked at brains of football players who didn't make it to the NFL, with equally scary results.

Researchers found evidence of CTE in 88 percent of the 202 deceased former football players' brains reviewed for the study, which was published last month in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Three out of 14 who had played only in high school had CTE, while 48 out of 53 college players had the disease.

Even before the newest research was made public, U.S.A. Football, a national governing body for youth football, seemed to acknowledge the link. In January, the organization issued new guidelines for how kids should play the sport, emphasizing safety by having younger children play flag football instead of the full-contact version.

That decline is starting to trickle up to high school.

The National Federation of State High School Associations reports that enrollment in high school football dropped by more than 25,000 between the 2015-16 school year and the 2016-17 school year, even as the overall enrollment in high school sports reached record highs last year.

Although it remains the most popular high school sport for boys, football's decline looks practically inevitable as risk-averse parents become more aware of the medical risks associated with the game and it becomes more expensive for schools to insure the players on the field. The numbers are bleaker for youth football programs, which have seen a 30 percent drop in the number of players since 2008, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association.

The decline is concentrated at schools in the Midwest and Northeast, which "are shedding high school football programs at a significant rate," The Washington Post reported this month. In just five years, 57 schools in Michigan have dropped the sport. Missouri has lost 24 high school football teams, while Pennsylvania has lost 12. Still, football's popularity is only growing in the South and West, where the number of teams has actually increased in recent years.

Sports can be an important component of childhood development. In an era when children and teenagers are less likely to leave home for recreational activities and when parents are ready to swoop-in at the slightest suggestion of any danger, organized sports league remain critical to the physical development of young bodies and minds.

And in places like Texas, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere, high school football helps bind communities together. Even that $70 million stadium in Katy, Texas, is about more than just football.

"I see it as an instructional facility where you have athletes competing for sure, but you have our bands, cheerleaders and drill teams performing," Lance Hindt, superintendent of the Katy Independent School District, told the Houston Business Journal earlier this year. "In fact, there are more fine arts kids who will perform there than football players. Our telecommunications students will be operating the digital video board."

It certainly makes sense for the district to get as much use as possible out of a $70 million investment, but it's still hard to see a stadium like that getting built without football. Even if a fair bit of the annual subsidies for football are sunk costs—stadiums, sure, but also teachers doubling as coaches, or other athletic resources like locker rooms that would be used by other teams even if football went away—taxpayers should question whether public schools should be supporting a sport that causes serious health problems and has a shrinking population of players.

Even if high school football ended, Easterbrook says, there would be still be plenty of young men willing to risk their health for the chance at fame, glory, and a big paycheck in the NFL. But it wouldn't be the same. "The difference without high school football would be that the many millions of parents, relatives and friends who today attend prep games—far more Americans actually attend high school football than NFL contests—wouldn't go, and wouldn't think of football as something important to their communities."

"That," he says, "would clobber the NFL."

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  1. I used to love football. But between the taxpayer subsidies, the fact that we pretend that all of these kids playing in college are “student athletes” (obviously some are), and the mania that the sport brings out in parents of pee-wee (I coached football at both the high school and 4th grade level) I really don’t care for it anymore.

    I do love rugby though. BBC America used to show the 6-Nations tournament every year. Apparently not anymore. (though even that sucks now, since Scotland is so bad and has been for some time).

  2. approved the stadium as part of a bond package in 2014.

    Ain’t Democracy grand?

    1. As all good California voters know (and apparently Texas voters now too), bond issues are paid for by the people who buy the bonds, duh.

  3. Here is where I unambiguously declare that I am a hypocrite.

    On the one hand, like Eric and most here, I abhor the marriage of public money and the gridiron.

    On the other hand?

    In little over an hour, I will be leaving the office and will be Foxboro bound. Two SUV caravan and I am not one of the drivers. So, in addition to being stoned, I will also be inebriated before turning onto Route 1 off of 495, never mind the parking lot.

    Then the Tailgating games begin!

    K.C. in an upset?

    1. Check out Mr. 1% over here, being able to afford tickets to a Patriots game.

      1. Isn’t Kraft the owner? Who’s to say he hasn’t been jacking up mayonnaise prices a few cents a jar to pay for his “privately financed” stadium? That’s why I only use artisanal mayo.

        1. Wrong Kraft.

    2. I’m a hypocrite on football too.

      Although, the current hysteria about hitting each other is making it harder to like.

      Only American fags can ruin a sport about heavy violent contact by complaining about heavy, violent contact.

      That is why I played it, why I loved it, and why I kept my head on a swivel so I would not get knocked out.
      No game is more fun to play. let them knock the shit out of each other. The overwhelmingly vast majority of football players through high school and probably mostly through college will have no ill effects from this sport.
      Just more herd outrage. The stadiums are horseshit too but I willingly attend.

      1. “Only American fags can ruin a sport about heavy violent contact by complaining about heavy, violent contact.”
        While there are some “fags” that care about sports, we are disproportionately uninterested compared to our straight male peers.

        So no. It’s not “American fags” ruining the sport. It’s straight folk.

        1. I won’t put words in his mouth but I suspect he was using the word facetiously.

          Anyway, this fag enjoys some sports – even somewhat violent ones like hockey and Aussie rules, but for reasons other than the “heavy violent contact”. ‘Mercan football has never interested me, though.

          1. Footy rocks

  4. Clearly Boehm isn’t from SEC country. Or Ohio. Or Michigan. Or Florida. You know, REAL AMERICA.

    1. Real America has historically always been the communities to which immigrants come for a better life

  5. A year ago I wouldn’t have entertained the notion in any serious way, but I’m beginning to think that the age of contact sports is coming to an end. Science is beginning to really tell us just how damaging and dangerous concussions are, and people are starting to listen. I wouldn’t be surprised if 30-40 years from now football, boxing, and MMA have withered and become ostracized activities.

    1. Good riddance, and please take baseball with you.

      1. Let’s get rid of all recreation and entertainment that at least one person does not like.

        1. Now you’re catching on.

    2. I doubt they’ll ever go away, but they’ll probably be a smaller part of American childhoods.

      Or to put it another way… competitive martial arts has long been a thing. Judo competitions, karate competitions, and so-on. And yeah, kids participate. But not every kid is encouraged and prodded to do so, and there are far fewer stories of parents going apocalyptic on other parents because of them. I expect that football and such will move more towards that, where some kids do it, but kids are no longer encouraged to try out en masse, and being part of the football team will no longer be as big of a status symbol.

    3. The only place to fight will be in illegal underground pit-fights, like a Van Damme movie come to life.

      Based on a lot of cinematic portrayals, I’ll put my money on the underweight Victoria’s secret model with the spunky attitude over guy that looks like Bautista and take all your cash.

    4. At least boxing will still have a feeder pipeline of poor kids who want to get rich fighting.
      Football needs teams and equipment and coaches and stadiums, and soccer moms aren’t going to let their kids play it anymore. It’s already happening. And unlike baseball and basketball, there are no foreign football players to fill the gap.

      1. I did think of that, boxing still draws a huge amount of its athletes from poor countries. That will probably mean boxing will be around a bit longer. Still, I would expect a (continual, since boxing is already waning) downscale of how much attention boxing gets.

    5. I’m not sure it will go away, but it undoubtedly will change.

      One of the biggest reasons football has become so dangerous has been because of rule changes in the 80s and then again in the early 2000s. Compared to football of yesteryear, defensive players are barely able to touch offensive players until the moment they’re hit/tackled. As a result, collisions are occurring at much greater speeds.

      Bring back bump and run coverage and (ironically) increase the physicality out in space and you’ll see the game become safer.

      But the NFL has no interest in doing so, because it likely means lower scores which means fewer touchdowns which means lower ratings.

      1. You’re right about that. Similarly w rule changes dating from the 1970s that discouraged body contact in blocking in exchange for hand fighting. The focus of contact has moved upward on the body, so knees are safer but heads & necks more endangered. Also players don’t stay as low to the ground so their heads fall from a greater height when they hit it.

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  7. Interesting how certain topics can turn even good libertarians into statists.

    Let’s deal with the ‘injurious’ side first – isn’t the freedom to screw up our own bodies a foundational principle? That right should only be taken away under extreme circumstances. There could be some legitimate arguments made against whether we allow public schools to support those activities (and about the entire club/sport system in public schools if we want to go down that path) but legal adults can make up their own damn minds.

    Also, tax-payer subsidized activities aren’t a problem so much as those that aren’t voter-agreed at a suitably local level. If the people in a school district want to pay for a stadium in the school district, let them. It’s when the legislators do it on their own or where the whole state pays for one city’s sports team (or the tax is off-loaded to people who have a disproportionately small representation in the vote) that I have issues with.

    TLDR: Let adults play if they want. Let’s adopt the Japanese student-led-no-over-paid-coach model of clubs and sports. Let communities tax themselves if they want but prevent them from taxing others or imposing the tax burden on the minority.

    And for the record, I hate football.

    1. I never realized how ascetically Puritanical Libertarians could be.

        1. Broehm seems to think that schools should only be about hitting the books. Nothing else.

    2. I was with you until you said that local voters should have the power to force their neighbors to pay for sports.

  8. CTE is a big deal, but can we get at least a little intellectual honesty? Let’s cite studies in the proper context. That 110 of 111 brains study focused on former NFL players who were showing strong cognitive impairments. It’s not remotely representative of the prevalence of CTE across all players.

    1. Bingo. That study, while interesting was not a representative sample.

      I’ll also go ahead and challenge the impacts on the health of the 99 percent of players who don’t go on to play college ball, hell I’ll throw in the 90 percent of those college players that don’t go on to pro. There is a big difference between taking a hit from a 150 pound kid that runs a 40 yard dash eventually and a 275 pound specimen that runs it in 4.4.

    2. This is an excellent point. And it’s also noteworthy because the authors of the study themselves never suggested it was a representative sample either. Only laypersons with an agenda did.

      A lot of people on Reason (not you) can be quick to blame scientists in these situations, but the problem often lies with journalists and politicians who like to cite studies they don’t fully understand.

    3. No it’s not. But the NFL also did a 1998 study (pre-CTE) where they found that risk of death from ‘early dementia’ (ALS and Alzheimers) was 4x times higher than the regular population of males. In their case they were talking about FOURTEEN deaths out of 380 total deaths (and 3900 former players from 1959-1988). If the CTE has since found 110 brains with CTE (from whoever of those 3900 has since died), either the risk has skyrocketed 8fold in the last couple decades (unlikely) – or the previous study was relying on somewhat bogus autopsies as to ’cause of death’.

      1. Even if you assume 1000 of those 3900 have died since that first study – 110 brains with CTE is a huge problem. Esp since the issue isn’t that they quietly ‘die’ of dementia or cognitive impairment (or fade into a shuffling Muhammad Ali) – but that that impairment causes a slew of other problems for themselves, their families, and others.

  9. I’ve never had much interest in sports in general, but I can at least see how most of the them would appeal to people. But not American football. It is so incredibly boring.

    The players line up, then they run into each other for 10-15 seconds, then they stop the clock and everybody just stands around for 12 minutes while the announcers talk about what just happened. Then they line up and run into each other again, for 10-15 seconds before they stop the clock again. Where is the appeal in this?

    Of all the major sports in this country, only tennis (and maybe car racing– any kind) comes close to being as boring as football.

    1. You had me nodding in agreement until your completely incorrect assessment of tennis. Sigh.

    2. Try playing it! I can’t stand watching soccer, but I love playing it.

      1. I think the one sport that’s less fun playing than watching has to be tennis. Unless you have some minimal amount of skill that I was unable to achieve, it’s no fun at all.

  10. “Taxpayers shouldn’t be supporting a sport that’s giving kids brain damage”

    Sounds like a good argument to continue the war on drugs!! The people like their football and the others just want to piss on the joy of others because they are miserable pricks with no life. I do not support tax payer funded stadiums unless we get payed back in full! That should be viable and always part of the deal. No worries though, they will eventually destroy the game with pink shoes, protests and politics.

    1. Bye Bye Soccer as well. Unless they’re going to start wearing helmets.

      1. Soccer could get along just fine without heading the ball. It’s not exactly integral to the play.

        1. Actually, it is. Heading in the open field is often critical to changing or maintaining possession, and the header off a corner kick is one of the most productive scoring plays in the game. It should not be taught to players under at least 10 because neck development is not sufficient, but the header is not a problem so long as it is done correctly

  11. One other small quibble – I don’t really have an issue with some of the cost of taxpayer funded “infrastructure improvements”. ROADZ and SKOOOLZ is the battle cry of the non-libertarian crowd, and if Ford opened a new plant or Amazon opened a new warehouse and the government had to add a freeway exit or overpass to prevent traffic chaos, I’m OK with that. Owners should pay for stadiums and parking lots, but if they build it, I’m not too concerned about the state having to build or expand highway access or add street lights and signage.

    1. I agree with this especially since it’s (usually ) illegal for the stadium owner to do any of those things himself.

  12. Stop subsidizing recreation, that means no more school plays, student newspapers, A/V clubs, etc., too? Right?

    1. I think we need to shut down the public schools while we study this issue further.

      1. In six months we revisit!

  13. Jock-O-Rama, save my soul
    We’re under the thumb of the Beef Patrol
    The future of America is in their hands
    Watch it roll over Niagara Falls…
    Pep rally in the holy temple
    And you’re forced to go
    Masturbate en masse
    With the favored religious cult
    Cheerleaders yell-“Ra Ra Team”
    From the locker room parades the prime beef
    When archaeologists dig this up
    They’ll either laugh or cry!
    Jock-O-Rama, on the brain
    Redneck-a-thon drivin’ me insane
    The future of America is in their hands
    Watch it roll over Niagara Falls
    Unzip that old time religion
    On the almighty football field
    Beer bellies of all ages
    Come to watch the gladiators bleed!

  14. I don’t know if space considerations prevented it, but did Easterbrook have any sources for the numbers he provided in this article? I love reading Tuesday Morning Quarterback, but I don’t recall seeing any of those numbers in his past columns, and they seem more WAG than actually sourced.

  15. Football is like smoking–as more people appreciate the health risks, participation will decrease to some lower rate (which may already have been reached). School districts should be left alone to decide for themselves whether to have and the extent to which to subsidize football.

    Local governments should not subsidize professional sports facilities–except maybe some needed infrastructure improvements

  16. I would just like to convey how deeply disappointed I am in this article. It is written like a typical media hack job, with a near-total lack of perspective. On taxpayer subsidies few readers will disagree. But on pros and cons, the comparison to other sports and other activities, and taking a thoughtful view of any “evidence”, this article failed badly. I hope the editors use less material by this author in the future.

  17. I don’t get the point about Little League. Football has Pop Warner. I think few if any high schools sponsor football teams prior to junior high, which can be grades 7 and 8. This is the exact same cutoff for soccer and other sports, at least where I live.

    I think you could certain;y make a case that sports should not be subsidized through schools. But that case would be most effective if it applied to all sports, not just football. The author here does seem to veer in that direction when he says no entertainment should be subsidized. But that would also mean no high school musical, no jazz band, no anything. I get that. I also think that you do need to guard against a scenario in which entry into elite institutions is premised on excelling at some of these activities, if access to such activities is going to be limited based on financial status.

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