Sports Teams Should Be Owned by the Public

Why do we allow billionaires to run beloved sports franchises as dictatorships and blackmail us for tax subsidies? We should put our favorite teams under public ownership.

Chris Thompson #25 of the Washington Redskins attempts to avoid the diving tackle of Anthony Brown #30 of the Dallas Cowboys during the first half at FedExField on September 15, 2019 in Landover, Maryland. (Scott Taetsch / Getty Images)

The Dallas Cowboys will face Washington tomorrow. Speculation is rife that Cowboys owner Jerry Jones will fire coach Jason Garrett shortly after, especially if the Cowboys lose the game and hence their shot at the playoffs. Washington owner Daniel Snyder already fired coach Jay Gruden in October.

As Mark Cannizzaro wrote at the time in the New York Post, there’s a good case to be made that Gruden wasn’t the problem. “If the Redskins owner truly wanted what’s best for his franchise, he would have fired himself, not only his head coach Jay Gruden . . . In the two decades Snyder has owned the franchise, the Redskins’ record is 139-185-1.”

While things aren’t that bad on the Dallas side, in some ways an even stronger case can be made that Jerry Jones is personally responsible for the problems his team does have. At least Dan Snyder hired a general manager and a team president. Jones just gave himself both jobs.

Reasonable people can disagree on whether this or that management decision made by either man is a wise one. But there’s a larger issue: why should any such decision be up to a single wealthy individual?

It doesn’t have to be like this.

How to Expropriate a Sports Franchise

Progressive pundit Eric Levitz recently made this suggestion on Twitter:

I’m not sure how serious Levitz is about this, but it sounds like a good idea to me. Then again, I’m a democratic socialist. I want to socialize all kinds of things. When I see wealthy “owners” watching games from luxury boxes literally high above the rest of the crowd, my ideological instinct is to start muttering things like “nationalization” and “we are the 99 percent.”

Why, though, should regular football fans who don’t start from a socialist worldview support such proposals? A common worry about socialist proposals of any kind is that what we’re talking about sounds like a wild leap into the unknown. Letting the Jerry Joneses of the world run the show might not be perfect, but on some level it works.

The thirty-two teams in the NFL collectively provide jobs for several tens of thousands of people and entertainment for tens of millions. For many Americans, football is an important way of connecting across generations with members of their families and their communities.

In a world where so much else is so unstable, why risk ruining a good thing with some sort of utopian political experiment? And anyway, doesn’t someone as colorful as Jerry Jones actually provide an additional form of entertainment?

Want to bring your local football team under social ownership? You don’t need to wait until after the revolution. As Harvey Wasserman pointed out in his criminally underrated 2014 article “The Real Solution to Scumbag Sports Owners,” a solution exists under the current system.

“The Fifth Amendment says the public has the right to take property with ‘just compensation.’ It’s called ‘eminent domain.’ Let’s use it to condemn all these franchises, buy out their ‘owners,’ and have the teams run by the cities, counties, and/or states in which they reside, and to which they rightfully belong.”

NFL teams are, after all, routine recipients of many forms of corporate welfare. Most obviously, the stadiums in which they play tend to be built with public funds. If they can’t cover their own costs, why should they be allowed to keep their profits private?

Moreover, if Jones or any other owner wanted to wrap themselves in a Gadsden flag of libertarian righteous indignation about their property rights being violated, we could point out that the same mechanism was used to build many of those stadiums in the first place. In Atlanta, where I now live, the Falcons’ Mercedes-Benz Stadium was built on land that included the city’s oldest African-American Baptist church.

If something like that can be justified by the often dubious hope that privately controlled football revenue will trickle down in a meaningful way to the communities hosting the teams, then bringing that revenue under direct public control surely justifies expropriation-with-compensation of an already obscenely wealthy figure like Jones. (And yes, “America’s team” plays in a publicly funded stadium built on land acquired with eminent domain seizures.)

Finally, it’s worth noting that cities’ decisions to lavish favors on their teams aren’t just a matter of corruption or bad politics. Owners can always blackmail cities into giving them what they want by threatening to move to a more accommodating community. Socialization would put an end to that.

A Model That Already Works

Once eminent domain is used to take the teams from their current owners, what happens next would not in fact be a leap into the unknown. The Green Bay Packers already exist, and as their legion of enthusiastic fans would attest, the utopian experiment of doing without an owner has not in fact ruined football for them.

The Packers have been running that experiment for several decades. Technically owned by a vast number of fans with non-saleable “shares” representing tiny pieces of the organization, the Packers are essentially a consumer co-op. (Three of the nine teams in the Canadian Football League similarly have some form of community ownership.)

From a democratic socialist perspective, this model is imperfect in many ways. For one thing, players and other employees are no more in control of their workplace than they would be if they had a traditional capitalist owner. But it’s a start.

We can experiment with tweaking the model to do things like giving some degree of direct management authority to the players’ unions. We don’t have to claim to be sure exactly what the future of football might look like in every particular. But the example of Green Bay shows that the Joneses of the world — the guys sitting in the “luxury boxes,” making all the decisions on behalf of the players risking concussions and the fans who live or die with the success of the team — don’t have to be part of that future.

The NFL vs. Democracy

Current NFL rules require that one individual own at least 30 percent of every team. (Since the Packers’ community organization structure predated the rule, the league grandfathered them in.) This “plutocracy protection rule” might seem to render everything said above moot, but there are at least a few possible ways around it.

The first and most straightforward is the Eric Levitz route — just nationalize the NFL! Lacking the national-level political will to do that, though, there are at least two other possibilities. One is that, if all thirty-two cities (or even the great majority of them) currently hosting private NFL franchises seized control of them, they could form a league of their own that would make the rump NFL irrelevant. Somewhere in between these poles, Congress could threaten to pull the NFL’s antitrust exemption if the plutocracy protection rule isn’t lifted (and if franchises seized through eminent domain and brought into community ownership are excluded from the league going forward).

Even if you’re a Cowboys fan who likes Jerry Jones, you should still like this proposal. Let’s say you agree with all of his decisions and that you think his constant presence adds value to your experience. Great. Well, if he was financially ruined tomorrow, under the current system, he’d lose control of the team. If the community was calling the shots, however, he could democratically campaign to keep his job as general manager.

Either way, shouldn’t the public decide?