(Tim Warner/Getty Images)
As week three of the National Football League’s season begins, players are still kneeling during the national anthem; the names of individuals killed by police remain on teams’ helmets; and in the stands and at home, fans continue debating the athletes’ actions and the country’s racial reckoning.
NFL owners and Commissioner Roger Goodell are sitting on the sidelines and supporting the athletes’ freedom of speech. Instead of criticizing players’ political protests as they have in years past, some owners are following their players’ lead and speaking out against police violence. Others have donated large sums to organizations focused on social justice reform in the U.S.
Meanwhile, NFL owners have also donated millions this election cycle to Republicans who disapprove of the protests, including President Donald Trump.
NFL team owners and their spouses have donated $4.2 million to politicians and PACs so far this election cycle, with 85 percent ($3.6 million) going to Republicans. Only $377,000 went to Democrats and $239,000 went to the National Football League’s PAC and other groups that support both parties.
New York Jets owner Robert “Woody” Johnson IV stands out in the lineup. Johnson and his wife donated $2.2 million this year, exclusively to Republicans. Most of that money went to top pro-Trump super PAC America First Action, while the rest went to the Republican National Committee, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Republican Senate candidate Bill Hagerty of Tennessee.
Johnson has been a vocal Trump supporter since 2016. He helped the Trump campaign raise money as one of the president’s finance vice chairmen at the Republican National Committee. Shortly after assuming office, Trump appointed Johnson as U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom, a role that Johnson has used to promote the president’s businesses in addition to U.S./U.K. relations. In 2018, he asked top government officials to move the British Open to Trump’s Turnberry golf resort in Scotland. Johnson said Trump requested he push for the change of location, though the president denies this.
Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross is the third largest donor in the pack and the top donor to Democrats, though also a Trump supporter. He and his wife have given left-leaning groups about $77,000 this cycle, though they’ve donated four times that to conservatives, about $320,000.
Ross’ politics stray from party lines. He recently floated the idea of raising $100 million for the right candidate in the 2021 New York City mayoral race, and as of now has no preference as to the candidate’s party affiliation. Although more fluid, Ross’ political viewpoints have affected his businesses and his team. Last year, the real-estate mogul received backlash from some Miami Dolphins players and customers of his luxury fitness brands after hosting a fundraiser for Trump in the Hamptons, where some tickets sold for up to $250,000. Equinox and SoulCycle fans threatened to end their memberships, and some followed through, including comedian Billy Eichner.
The only other owner-spouse pair to donate over $400,000 this election cycle is Jimmy and Dee Haslam, co-owners of the Cleveland Browns. They’ve given almost exclusively to Republican candidates and PACs. Of their billions, $590,600 went to Republicans and $7,000 went to Democrats. Their heftiest donations went to the National Republican Congressional Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Both committees strongly denounced Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling during the national anthem four years ago as well as a Nike ad that featured the former San Francisco 49er and read, “Believe in something even if that means risking everything.”
In 2016, nine NFL owners donated to Trump’s inaugural committee, but only three have donated to Trump or pro-Trump groups this election cycle: Woody Johnson, Edward Glazer and Jimmy Haslam. Notably, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who donated $1 million to the president’s inaugural committee, has not given the president any money in recent years despite being longtime friends. Three years ago, when Trump began denouncing players’ protests against social injustice, Kraft called the comments “divisive” and “horrible.” This election cycle Kraft has donated exclusively to Democrats and nonpartisan groups.
The only two NFL owners to donate to Joe Biden this election cycle are Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney II and Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank. Together with their spouses, they donated $12,800 to the Democratic nominee, who has supported the NFL protests this season.
On the players’ side, the NFLPA One Team PAC has raised $366,700 this election cycle but has spent only $15,000, all of which has gone to Republicans, including former player Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R-Ohio).
As owners pour money from their football franchises into the election, the nominees themselves are also using the sport to persuade voters. Biden is airing one ad nationally during each NFL game between now and Nov. 3. He is also running ads on local stations and recently released an ad that blames the president for cancelled college sports seasons and states “Trump put America on the sidelines.” The ad, which is filled with aerial shots of empty stadiums, prompted Trump to successfully pressure the Big Ten Conference to play ball this fall.
Like Biden, the president is also booking ads during NFL games, though primarily on local channels. In one ad, the narrator speaks of “Trump’s great American comeback” and how the pandemic’s “finish line is approaching.”
While the NFL season is nowhere near the finish line, the presidential election is just 40 days away and the league is converting 13 stadiums into voting centers this fall.
“The clubs who have made their facilities available to host polling activities help to make it even easier for fans to participate in our democratic process and make their voices heard in the upcoming elections,” NFL Vice President of Government Affairs Kenneth Edmonds told the Associated Press.
Well before casting their votes, owners have made their voices heard by opening up their wallets. The $4.2 million these football giants shelled out has gone overwhelmingly to Republican groups hoping to persuade voters before they step into NFL stadiums this November. Protests on the field and ads run during primetime games could influence not only who fans root for, but also how fans vote.
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