From welfare to riches to (corporate) welfare

It’s the classic story on ESPN about an athlete; how he or she goes from welfare to becoming a super athlete who is super-rich. Consider LeBron James, Michael Oher (“The Blind Side”), and Usain Bolt. We all admire these athletes for their skills, but also their dedication to the principle of hard work to make it from rags to riches. Once they are rich, we like to think that they are well beyond needing any kind of financial support from society in order to further pursue their endeavors.

Let’s say that you are a successful athlete like Kevin Carter, a college football studio analyst for ESPN. Carter was a two-time Pro Bowl selection in his fourteen year career as a defensive end in the NFL. He was a Super Bowl champion with the 1999 St. Louis Rams.

The relationship between an employer and an athlete who once was on welfare is rather curious. Both live, in part, on welfare, but the athlete’s family was obviously poor, and ESPN is extremely rich. ESPN is not an ordinary company. It takes in nearly $6 billion a year, and in truly a grass-roots fashion, with nearly one hundred million household subscribers paying $5.54 a month to receive ESPN. It has a solid business model that gives it a seemingly endless demand for its products. Sports is a multi-billion dollar enterprise in the United States and around the world. While the means of delivering it to the fans will undoubtedly change, it will remain electronic for the foreseeable future. A company like ESPN has been and is likely to remain on the vanguard of any changes.

ESPN-hdqtrs-aESPN’s headquarters is located in Connecticut. But the sports channel’s presence in “the Constitution state” has not been a guaranteed fact as it has expanded. Nor is it guaranteed for the future. Like the many professional sports teams that it covers, ESPN is constantly threatening its home base that it will pick up stakes and move elsewhere if it doesn’t receive “necessary” tax abatements. Maybe it’s necessary if ESPN’s goal is to “keep up with the Joneses” when it comes to wealthy companies squeezing state and local governments for largess that contributes to its profits. But it certainly is not necessary when you think of all the other responsibilities that these state and local governments have.

So, as Connecticut tries to properly fund New Haven and Hartford’s struggling schools, and to address an increasing heroin problem, ESPN has been bilking it for significant dollars over the past dozen years. The New York Times reports that ESPN “has received about $260 million in state tax breaks and credits over the past 12 years. That includes $84.7 million in development tax credits because of a film and digital media program, as well as savings of about $15 million a year after the network successfully lobbied the state for a tax code change in 2000.” Back in 2011, Connecticut Governor Dannel P. Malloy had to visit ESPN three time  to ensure that the proper tax breaks were in place for the sports media giant to begin its nineteenth building on its campus.

Is it possible that ESPN would abandon its existing eighteen buildings and move elsewhere just because it did not receive the tax breaks it wanted? Apparently, the fear is being felt. It’s similar to when the St. Louis Baseball Cardinals owners threatened to move the team out of town in the early 2000s if a new stadium wasn’t built (this at a time when the team had an excellent facility designed by world-famous architect Edward Durrell Stone). It’s hard to imagine St. Louis losing its Cardinals, but sports capitalism allows entrenched teams to threaten to leave their home bases as a way of getting  more concessions from government.

There just seems to be a fundamental irony in the whole system. A sports media conglomerate whose wealth stretches into the millions continues to ask for tax breaks, while it covets athletes, many of whom came from families that really needed welfare to survive. Yet the “makers and shakers” of our society tend to moan about the welfare that goes to needy families, while accepting corporate welfare as just another legitimate cost of doing business. No wonder discussion about redistributing income is becoming acceptable in our society.