By Peter Baker and Ken Belson
WASHINGTON – President Trump threatened on Tuesday to use federal tax law to penalize the National Football League over players who kneel in protest during the national anthem, but the White House later backed off, saying he was only making a point.
Escalating a political fight that has resonated with his conservative base, Trump said that Congress should eliminate a law that has allowed the NFL central office to avoid paying taxes as a nonprofit entity. “Why is the NFL getting massive tax breaks while at the same time disrespecting our Anthem, Flag and Country?” he wrote on Twitter. “Change tax law!”
The tax break for the NFL has been a point of controversy for years, and other conservatives have taken up the cause in recent weeks. But the idea would be more about symbolism than impact.
The tax break applies only to the central office, not the teams, which are the real moneymakers and already pay taxes as for-profit organizations, and the NFL voluntarily gave up the office’s tax exemption in 2015.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said the president was making a statement, not a proposal. She noted that professional football teams benefit when local and state governments help them build stadiums but did not suggest that Congress should try to block those lower governments from doing so.
Trump on Tuesday also focused his fire again on Jemele Hill, the “SportsCenter” host on ESPN who previously called the president a white supremacist. Hill was suspended Monday for suggesting that fans boycott advertisers of the Dallas Cowboys after the team owner, Jerry Jones, threatened to bench players who knelt during the national anthem.
“With Jemele Hill at the mike, it is no wonder ESPN ratings have ‘tanked,’ in fact, tanked so badly it is the talk of the industry!” Trump wrote on Twitter.
ESPN has faced significant challenges and is now available in just under 88 million homes, compared with 100 million homes in 2011. In the first half of 2017, its prime-time ratings were up 1 percent compared with the same period in 2016, although its total day ratings were down more than 5 percent. But ESPN is still a ratings behemoth and highly profitable. In the third quarter, it led full-time cable networks in total day and prime-time ratings among the key demographics of men ages 18 to 54.