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6 Right-Wing Sports Team Owners Bankrolling Their Radical Agenda With Your Tax Dollars

Professional sports team owners are among the wealthiest people in the world--and some of the most influential right-wing ideologues in the country.
 
 
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Chances are that basketball fans cheering on the Orlando Magic’s star center Dwight Howard haven’t a clue they’re also supporting the radical right-wing ideology of the team’s billionaire owner, Richard DeVos. And when hockey fans root for the Philadelphia Flyers, they are likely unaware that the team’s war-mongering owner, Ed Snider, is profiting off of their support.

While establishment pundits often claim that sports and politics don’t mix, David Zirin, author of Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love and sports editor for the Nation, argues just the opposite. He recently told AlterNet that, “The ability to manipulate politics, the ability to pull strings, and the ability to do so without an ounce of public scrutiny -- that is your typical major sports owner.”

The exploitation of professional sports by the powerful is most evident in the hyperpatriotism that saturates almost every major sporting event. The aftermath of 9/11 has seen professional sports, particularly the National Football League and Major League Baseball, co-opted to promote a culture of war under the guise of patriotism and “supporting the troops." The military is more visible than ever in professional sports with fighter jet flyovers that follow the national anthem, the NFL’s military recruitment stations at preseason games, and soldiers returned from war surprising their families for all to see.

Andrew Bacevich recently wrote about the spectacle he witnessed at a Red Sox game on the 4th of July. The Navy and the Red Sox teamed up to perform a “public relations triumph” by reuniting Bridget Lydon, a sailor “serving aboard the carrier USS Ronald Reagan” to aid in the Afghanistan war, with her family for the entire ballpark to see. The crowd went wild, erupting in cheers and applause to “honor the families whose sons and daughters are serving our country,” just as the voice from the loudspeaker had requested.

While the ever-increasing patriotic fervor is easy to recognize, there are less visible connections between politics and sports on the part of professional sports team owners, who are among the wealthiest people in the world. They’re also some of the most influential right-wing ideologues in the country.

The intermingling of professional sports ownership and right-wing politics is no more apparent than in the case of President George W. Bush. Long before Bush entered the world of politics, he was part owner of the MLB's Texas Rangers beginning in 1990. The connections he made during his time with the Rangers helped propel him to White House. In 2004, the Associated Press reported that "More than a dozen current and former owners and family members are among the president's top re-election fundraisers.” The report added, “The Bush campaign has also received direct contributions from owners and executives of more than half of the sport's 30 teams.” 

During his years as part team owner, Bush and his ownership crew pressured the Texas government into building them a new taxpayer-funded stadium by threatening to relocate the team. In the end, the owners succeeded in securing $135 million from the local government to build a $190 million ballpark. Meanwhile, Bush’s investment in the Rangers skyrocketed. According to Zirin, by the time Bush “cashed out in 1998, the return on his original $600,000 investment in the Rangers was 2,400 percent, upping his takeaway to a cool $14.4 million.” 

While all team owners take advantage of their power and the taxpayer subsidies that often finance their stadiums, six go even further by using their ownership power and privilege to push their radical right-wing ideology onto an unsuspecting fan base.

1. Richard ‘Dick’ DeVos

The 85-year-old multibillionaire, Richard DeVos, is the 62nd richest person in America and 254th wealthiest in the world, according to Forbes. He amassed much of his $4.2 billion fortune as cofounder of the Amway Corporation. Along the way, he purchased the NBA’s Orlando Magic for $85 million. That was back in 1991. Today, Forbes values the team at $385 million, a number that could rise now that the team’s brand new Amway Center is complete and expected to host the NBA All-Star game in 2012.

DeVos spent years insisting that Florida’s residents build him a new arena, even threatening, as most owners do, to uproot the team if Orlando didn’t heed his demands. Ultimately, his request was granted and last October the Orlando Magic’s new home was unveiled along with a $480 million price tag. State and local taxpayers picked up most of the tab, while the team pitched in a puny 12 percent, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

But DeVos is more than just a billionaire owner soaked in hundreds of millions of dollars in corporate welfare. David Zirin has dubbed him “the top chef of every religious-right cause on Pat Robertson’s buffet table.” DeVos funnels millions of dollars through his nonprofit Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation to fund conservative Christian groups championing such causes as discredited reparative gay therapy designed to turn gay and lesbian people into heterosexuals, the teaching of creationism in schools, and the privatization of all things public, to name just a few.

Among his favorite funding projects are Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council, and the Traditional Values Coalition, all of which made it onto the Southern Poverty Law Center’s list of groups that “help drive the religious right's anti-gay crusade.” DeVos has also backed the Christian Dominionist movement, which believes in instituting a Christian theocracy governed by Biblical law in place of the constitution. He is also a member of the Council for National Policy (CNP), a secretive group created by the radical John Birch Society in the early 1980s.

Rachel Tabachnick, writing for AlterNet, recently exposed another layer of DeVos' agenda—his relentless support for the decades-long conservative effort to privatize public education, most recently with public school vouchers under the guise of “school choice.”

Dick DeVos also had a close relationship with the late Michigan billionaire Edgar Prince, whose daughter Betsy Prince married Dick DeVos’ son, Dick Jr., in what Zirin describes as a “royal coupling” reminiscent of “feudal Europe.” Edgar Prince’s son is the infamous Erik Prince, founder of Xe Services (formerly known as Blackwater Worldwide), a private army of mercenaries that has received over $1 billion in government contracts over the last decade to help occupy Iraq, Afghanistan and even post-Katrina New Orleans. 

The forces of the Prince and DeVos families have combined to manipulate the country’s political landscape by heavily funding organizations of the religious right, free-market fundamentalism and Republican interest groups. According to ABC News, the Dick & Betsy DeVos Foundation helped fund the group Citizens United, which filed the lawsuit that led to last year's Supreme Court decision enabling corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money influencing elections, without disclosure.

2. Philip Anschutz: The Invisible Billionaire

Phil Anschutz is a 71-years-old business tycoon worth $7.1 billion, making him the 34th richest American on the Forbes 400. He is minority owner of the NBA’s L.A. Lakers and the NHL’s L.A. Kings. He also owns Staples Center in L.A., which is among 120 entertainment venues controlled by his privately held Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG). AEG promotes tours for the top names in music, like the Black Eyed Peas, Cher, Jon Bon Jovi and Justin Bieber.

Despite his enormous wealth and colossal empire stretching from energy and telecommunications to cinemas and railways, most people have never heard of Phil Anschutz. His utter invisibility may be due in part to a dearth of media appearances. According to Forbes, Anschutz has given just three interviews over the last four decades, which his spokesperson said was “three interviews too many.”

Anschutz epitomizes what Zirin calls “the Keyser Soze principle,” which is based on the movie The Usual Suspects, when Kevin Spacey’s character says, “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”  The title of a Forbes cover story that profiled Anschutz last year agreed, calling him “The Man Behind the Curtain.”

Zirin describes Anchutz as “someboday who preaches an Ayn Randian ideology to his various underlings about the genius and wonderment of the free-market,” which explains why he subsidizes two money-losing conservative publications, the Weekly Standard and the Examiner, both of which he uses to amplify conservative propaganda.

In his free time, Anschutz keeps busy with Christian conservatism and opposition to gay marriage. According to the Independent, he bankrolled the conservative group Colorado for Family Values, which was behind Colorado’s Amendment 2, a ballot initiative that sought to eliminate state laws protecting gay rights. He also donates to the Discovery institute, a “think-tank” that criticizes evolution and promotes “a new spin on creationism.”

3. Ed Snider hearts Ayn Rand and War  

Ed Snider, CEO of the Philadelphia-based sports and entertainment firm Comcast Spectator, owns two sports teams: the Philadelphia Flyers (NHL) and the Philadelphia 76ers (NBA). Along with hockey and basketball, Snider is an admirer of Ayn Rand, so much so that he co-founded the Ayn Rand Institute in the mid-1980s. He was also the executive producer of a movie based on his all-time favorite book, Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.

Besides funding the Institute, Snider remained largely passive in the political arena until the 2001 terrorist attacks. It was after 9/11 that Snider aggressively engaged in politics by becoming the number one donor to Freedom’s Watch, a group that pushed for war with Iraq in support of George W. Bush’s war on terror.

According to Politico, one of the organization's first projects involved a $15 million propaganda campaign that pushed for a troop surge in Iraq by conflating the war with 9/11. For five weeks radio, web and television ads featuring military veterans filled the airwaves. In the opening ad, a military veteran said:

I re-enlisted after Sept. 11 because I don’t want my sons to see what I saw. I want them to be free and safe. I know what I lost. I also know that if we pull out now, everything I’ve given and the sacrifices will mean nothing. They attacked us, and they will again. They won’t stop in Iraq. We are winning on the ground and making real progress. It’s no time to quit. It’s no time for politics.

When John McCain chose the self-described hockey mom Sarah Palin as his running mate in the 2008 election, Snider jumped at the opportunity to continue his push for endless war by supporting the pro-war duo. He used his hockey stadium, along with its audience, to play PR agent for Sarah Palin by inviting her to drop the puck at the Flyers' season opener.

In the Flyers' press release, Snider is quoted as saying, “Because of the tremendous amount of publicity she has brought to our sport, we invited the most popular hockey mom in North America to our home opener to help us get our season started."

Snider was doing nothing illegal in his position as team owner, but as Will Bunch of the Philidelphia Daily News put it prior to the event, "he's making a huge in-kind donation to the McCain-Palin campaign in the arena that we taxpayers kicked in for, giving her a chance to skate her stuff in front of 19,500 mostly upscale male hockey fans from the swing suburbs outside Philly,” adding that “Flyers fans should be outraged -- even conservative ones, because this misuse of a hockey game for his political agenda is flat-out wrong.”

Snider's plan ultimately backfired when fans at Philidelphia's Wachovia Center erupted in boos when Palin came onto the ice. In the midst of this spectacle, writes Zirin, "the JumboTron, our twenty-first-century altar of truth, sent forth a simple request:  'Flyers fans, show Philadelphia’s class and welcome America’s number-one hockey mom, Sarah Palin!'"

“The problem,” Zirin argues, “is when owners use the platform handed to them by taxpayers to play propagandist,” in which case Ed Snider is guilty.

4. Ken Kendrick Says Yes to Racial Profiling!

In April of 2010, Arizona’s Republican governor Jan Brewer signed into law the anti-immigrant Senate Bill 1070 (SB 1070), which gave law enforcement the power to search and arrest individuals they suspected were undocumented, effectively institutionalizing racial profiling. Almost immediately, a giant backlash erupted across the country as businesses, civil rights groups, religious organizations, and members of Congress demanded the law be overturned.

Democracy Now reported that baseball fans throughout the country were demanding that the MLB’s owner's move the 2011 All-Star game out of the Chase Field in Phoenix, Arizona. Fans also threatened to boycott the Arizona Diamondbacks if the team’s owner, Ken Kendrick, didn’t end his support for SB 1070.

Despite deep financial ties to the Arizona Republicans supporting the bill, Diamondbacks CEO Derrick Hall stressed that the organization was not politically affiliated while Kendrick insisted in a press release that he was opposed to the law.

But, according to an investigation by the Center for Responsive Politics, “no team in Major League Baseball is more politically active, or overwhelmingly supportive of GOP political interests, than the D-backs.” Since 2004, Diamondbacks’ officials have donated $790,000 to Republicans, and most of that has come from the Kendrick family. Kendrick’s recipients included Republican “Sens. John McCain ($44,100) and John Kyl ($34,350),” both ardent supporters of SB 1070.

As Kendrick and Hall were telling the country that the Diamondbacks did not support SB 1070 and that politics and sports did not mix, Zirin reported in the Nation that Kendrick was hosting "a private fundraiser inside his owners box at Chase Field for SB 1070 supporter State Senator Jonathan Paton” set to take place “during the D-backs game against the San Francisco Giants.”

While Kendrick's actions were legal, they should put to rest the notion that politics and sports have no connection.

5. Alex Spanos: Dubya’s BFF

Alex Spanos, of the NFL’s San Diego Chargers, is an 85-year-old self-made real estate tycoon coming in at number 365 on Forbes 400, with a net worth of $1.1 billion. Unlike other sports owners, Spanos is not media-shy about his political leanings.

In 2005, Spanos bragged to the local press of his hometown, Stockton, California, that he has “been friends with every Republican president since Gerald Ford.” Those bragging rights were well earned. During the 2004 presidential election, he lent his private jet to his close and personal friend George W. Bush, who used it to fly around the country during his 2004 presidential campaign. 

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, from 1989 to 2009 political contributions from the Chargers' executives, coaches and players were the highest in the league at $2.4 million, 98 percent of which went to Republicans. The CRP describes Spanos as "professional football's most prolific political bankroller" whose contributions alone totaled $2 million.

This doesn't include his $5 million 2004 contribution to the Progress for America Voter Fund, a conservative 527 group that funnels money into Republican campaigns.  According to the Center for Media and Democracy's SourceWatch, Spanos was a Bush Ranger in 2004, meaning he contributed more than $200,000 directly to his and Cheney's re-election campaign.

In the 2000 presidential election, the New York Times counted Spanos as part of the Republican Regents, a group of individual and corporate donors who contributed no less than $250,000 to Bush's election.

According to California Watch, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting, Spanos also contributed $15,000 to Rick Perry’s 2008 reelection bid for Texas Governor. 

6. Charlie Monfort: Pitching for Jesus

Charlie Monfort owns the Colorado Rockies Major League Baseball team, which he was able to purchase with the fortune he inherited from his father’s slaughterhouse business in Greeley, Colorado. According to Dave Zirin, Monfort is also a supporter of several right-wing politicians, including:

…former Colorado representative Tom Tancredo (who once suggested the bombing of Mecca as a sound foreign policy alternative and lambasted the Denver Public Library system for supplying books and Magazines written in Spanish) and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, who has been a stalwart opponent of “the gay agenda” and its connection to bestiality—specifically, in Santorum’s words, the rise of “man-dog love.”

In addition to being a diehard Republican, Monfort has injected his religious beliefs into every aspect of the Colorodo Rockies franchise. In 2006, Monfort went public with his team's Christian strategy in USA Today, admitting to the world that the Rockies embrace a "Christian-based code of conduct" by recruiting players that have "character." Monfort defined "character" in the following words: "I don't want to offend anyone, but I think character-wise we're stronger than anyone in baseball. Christians, and what they've endured, are some of the strongest people in baseball. I believe God sends signs, and we're seeing those."

Monfort also uses his publicly funded stadium as a platform to push his evangelical Christian agenda in the form of "Faith Days" (originally called "Christian Family Day"). The Rockies “Faith Day 2011” is described on the team’s Web site as “a great opportunity for Colorado churches and Christians from all over the state to come together and worship at the ballpark!”

According to the New York Times, Faith Nights, introduced by the Christian Marketing organization Third Coast Sports, provide fans who pay an extra $10 with a Christian rock concert either before or after games, followed by testimonials from players about their faith in Jesus Christ.

Third Coast Sports is sponsored by a handful of Christian groups, including the fundamentalist Christian organization Focus on the Family. According to the Washington Post, the Atlanta Braves disinvited Focus on the Family from Faith Nights in 2008, "because it had used the occasion to distribute literature comparing homosexuality to alcoholism."

Sports columnist Michael O'Keefe argues in the New York Daily News that sports are supposed to be inclusive of people from different backgrounds, but with owners like Monfort in charge, "sports are used to promote their brand of conservative politics and fundamentalist Christianity -- gays, Jews, Muslims and atheists be damned."

Rania Khalek is a progressive activist. Check out her blog Missing Pieces or follow her on Twitter @RaniaKhalek. You can contact her at raniakhalek@gmail.com.
 
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