Sports team owners support Republicans with millions
The video by the Miami Dolphins was part explanation, part defiant challenge.
They would stay in the locker room before games, for both the national anthem and “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” because of the racial injustices they had both seen and experienced. A criminal justice system rigged against Black and brown people. Economic inequality. Failing schools.
Instead of lip service and platitudes, the Dolphins demanded a real commitment to change, in the currency owners understand best.
“No more fluff and empty gestures,” Dolphins players said in the video, which they released on social media Sept. 10. “We need owners with influence and pockets bigger than ours to call up officials and flex political power.”
Owners are flexing, all right. But the politicians to whom they’re donating have, in many cases, put them in direct opposition with their players’ social justice efforts.
USA TODAY Sports reviewed the political contributions of 183 owners from 161 teams across MLB, MLS, the NBA, the NFL, the NHL and the WNBA. The filings show that owners have collectively given at least $14.6 million to federal candidates during the 2019-20 election cycle so far – with nearly 86% of those funds going to Republican candidates and causes.
USA TODAY Sports found that owners have directed more than $3.7 million to political action committees directly aligned with President Donald Trump, who has said he does not support the Black Lives Matter movement and does not believe that systemic racism exists. Other Republican candidates have echoed Trump’s positions or declined to contradict them.
In contrast, owners have given a combined $1.35 million to Democratic candidates and causes during this election cycle, including roughly $334,000 to presidential nominee Joe Biden. While more owners have given directly to Biden than to Trump, the donations generally have been in much smaller amounts.
Owners have also donated $718,965 to industry- or issue-based PACs, including those operated by the NFL and MLB.
“I’m not going to give my energy to that, because it’s not surprising,” Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James said Tuesday, when asked about the partisan trends of owner contributions. “My mom has always told me control what you can control. And I can’t control that. What I can control is what I’m doing on my side.”
Owners, meanwhile, are largely hesitant to discuss their donations. In response to inquiries from USA TODAY Sports about their political giving, 18 owners either declined to be interviewed or did not provide answers to questions sent through team or corporate spokespeople.
Sociologist Harry Edwards said the political donations exemplify the “ideological disconnect” that remains between predominantly white owners and their Black players, despite steps that have been taken in recent months.
“These owners standing up and saying ‘Black Lives Matter,’ and even taking a knee, doesn’t mean that they get it,” Edwards said. “What shows what they get is where they put their money.”
To better understand the size and scope of sports’ owners political influence, USA TODAY Sports reviewed thousands of Federal Election Commission filings and tracked more than 1,000 individual contributions made by teams’ principal owners and/or managing partners since Jan. 1, 2019.
In family, group or corporate ownership arrangements, USA TODAY Sports also compiled the donations of up to three additional co-owners – including spouses and business partners – depending upon their level of association and involvement with their team.
Fifty-five of the 183 owners haven’t given any money to federal candidates so far during this election cycle, though some are prohibited from making such donations because they are foreign nationals. Most who could and did open their wallets have given between $5,000 and $25,000.
Others quickly climbed to six figures, and beyond.
USA TODAY Sports found that the 10 largest spenders have accounted for roughly two-thirds of the overall political spending by sports ownership during this election cycle, led by San Francisco Giants owner Charles Johnson, who has given more than $3.25 million. In total, 23 owners have donated $100,000 or more.
While six-figure giving might not seem like much for owners whose teams can be worth more than $1 billion, it puts them in rare company, said Brendan Quinn, a spokesperson for The Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit organization that tracks federal campaign spending.
The people who give that kind of money represent a “very, very small percentage not just of the population, but of political givers,” Quinn explained. Which makes the potential return significant.
“It’s going to make their names and their voices known, especially if these are hard-money contributions that are going directly to the candidates,” Quinn said. “You wouldn’t be giving money if it didn’t give you some sort of influence.”
Some owners, such as Micky Arison of the Miami Heat, have given their money fairly evenly to both Democrats and Republicans during this election cycle, which Quinn said generally suggests a desire to simply advance their business interests. Others have given overwhelmingly to candidates of one party, which can be more indicative of a donor’s fundamental beliefs.
At least one donation appears to be rooted in spite.
According to the New York Post, Knicks owner James Dolan wrote a $50,000 check to a Republican super PAC last week after Rep. Max Rose, D-N.Y., called the Knicks organization “a disgrace” in an interview with TMZ and publicly pleaded for Dolan to sell the team.
“Max Rose thinks he can make our team and my ownership his political platform,” Dolan wrote in an email, obtained by the newspaper, to friends, urging them to donate to Rose’s opponent in the upcoming election. “I need to let him know that we will not stand for this.”
A spokeswoman for Dolan did not acknowledge an email from USA TODAY Sports with a series of questions about his political giving.
Ten days after the death of George Floyd, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers joined dozens of sports teams across the country by releasing a statement on racial injustice in America, describing their organization as “united against racism and the hatred which fuels it.”
“Change for the black community must happen now and we must lead by our collective actions,” the team said in part of its statement.
Less than 24 hours later, Trump offered a starkly different tone during remarks at the White House. He urged law enforcement to “dominate the streets” in response to Black Lives Matter protests, and invoked Floyd’s name during remarks about improving unemployment figures.
“Hopefully, George is looking down right now and saying, ‘This is a great thing that’s happening for our country,’ ” Trump said. “This is a great day for him. It’s a great day for everybody.”
One day after those remarks, and two days after the Buccaneers released their statement, a joint fundraising committee called “Trump Victory” received an $82,200 donation from Edward Glazer, the multimillionaire co-owner of the team.
Glazer declined an interview request through a Buccaneers spokesperson.
Glazer is one of the eight current NFL owners who donated to Trump or his inaugural committee in 2016. And he is among those who have continued to support the president – and his Republican allies – ahead of this fall’s election, even as Trump continues to criticize the league and its players for protesting racial injustice by kneeling during the national anthem.
In total, USA TODAY Sports found that roughly 89% of the $3.8 million donated by NFL owners since 2019 has gone to Republicans – including just under $2 million from New York Jets owner Woody Johnson, who is now working in the Trump administration as the ambassador to the United Kingdom.
Arizona’s Michael Bidwill, Cincinnati’s Mike Brown and Cleveland’s Jimmy and Dee Haslam have also made five-figure contributions to PACs benefiting Trump or Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. The Senate Majority Leader has stalled the progress of a police reform bill passed by the House that bears Floyd’s name, legislation that has been at the center of many athletes’ lobbying efforts.
“(Some of) these owners aren’t passive when it comes to their actions around racial justice and Black Lives Matter. They are actively standing on the other side,” said Rashad Robinson, the president of civil rights nonprofit Color of Change.
“On one hand, they are telling us they care. On the other hand, they are literally handing over millions of dollars to make life harder for Black people and Black communities.”
Other NFL owners, including Washington’s Daniel Snyder and Dallas’ Jerry Jones, have opted not to make individual contributions to any federal campaigns or candidates during this election cycle – which, for those two men, represents a departure from a lengthy history of steady contributions to the GOP.
It is not unusual for team owners, many of whom also own separate businesses, to give money to politicians. But this year, the donations will likely be viewed more critically by athletes, who can weigh an owner’s public gestures against his or her private spending.
With Black players making up more than 70% of the NFL, NBA and WNBA, issues such as police brutality and systemic racism are very personal causes to a large swath of professional athletes. And their passion is not likely to fade with time.
“The organizations that we play for, that we represent, they need to understand that we’re members of our community and our lives matter – our cousins, our brothers, our sisters, nieces, nephews, their lives matter, too, to us,” Boston Celtics guard Jaylen Brown, one of the more outspoken NBA players, told USA TODAY Sports.
“I know we’ve reached a certain level and everybody thinks you’re a millionaire – ‘What have you got to complain about? You’re an NBA player, you should be grateful.’ But just because I’ve escaped the barriers that society has put up, why I should I forget about the people who won’t?”
Athletes’ activism has forced some owners to reconcile the disconnect between their political spending and their other actions.
Take Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta. A Texas billionaire who made his fortune in restaurants, he has given annual donations of $35,000 to Trump Victory in three consecutive years, with the most recent check landing in February.
But in the seven months since, he has made no other contributions at the federal level. And in an interview with the Houston Chronicle in June, he pledged to personally help combat racism and police brutality in America.
“I will use my leadership and my resources and my place in this city to not just point out the problem, but to be part of the solution,” Fertitta told the newspaper.
Spokespeople for Fertitta did not respond to questions from USA TODAY Sports about whether the 63-year-old plans to alter his political giving in the future.
Others have already done so. Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeffrey Vinik has a long history of financially supporting Republican politicians. But in August, he donated $50,000 to Unite the Country, a PAC for Biden. It’s his largest contribution of this election cycle.
Vinik, whose team won the Stanley Cup on Monday night, was not immediately available to comment on his political giving.
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, meanwhile, has intentionally not made any political donations during this election cycle. In response to a series of questions from USA TODAY Sports, he wrote in an email only that “every owner and every player has to make their own choices.”
“I can’t speak to anyone else. But for myself I do what I think is right,” Cuban wrote. “There are many things much bigger than basketball.”
While former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s now-famous protests during the national anthem in 2016 did not disrupt games, athletes have shown in recent months that they’re willing to take more drastic action to spur the changes.
After Jacob Blake was shot seven times by a police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Bucks refused to take the court for a playoff game, leading the NBA to postpone two days’ worth of games. The Milwaukee Brewers quickly joined the Bucks, and 10 MLB games were postponed. The WNBA also halted play for two days, and several NFL teams called off practices.
In response to the work stoppages, the NBA created a foundation to focus on social justice issues and agreed to donate $300 million to it over the next 10 years. The NFL has also committed $250 million to address “criminal justice reform, police reforms and economic and educational advancement” over the same time period.
Meanwhile, owners across several sports have agreed to use their arenas as voting sites for the Nov. 3 election or as early voting centers. The NBA, WNBA and NFL also pledged to put money and resources toward voter registration and get-out-the-vote campaigns.
Edwards said those initiatives are proof of the power that athletes possess.
“(Owners) are doing all of this stuff that the Republicans they gave money to are fighting against,” Edwards said. “(Players say), ‘I can’t change your heart. But what I can change is what you do about these issues I’m concerned about.’
“Are all of the owners happy about that? Hell no,” he continued. “But who gives a damn if they’re happy or not? As long as the zeroes on the players’ checks are right and players recognize nobody’s going to come pay to see Robert Kraft play wide receiver, we can live with that.
“That’s why they call it a struggle, not a picnic.”
Contributing: Jarrett Bell, Nick Penzenstadler, Jim Sergent, Julio Vega and Jeff Zillgitt