WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Tuesday the National Football League should not be given tax breaks, stepping up his criticism of the world’s top-grossing sports league over silent player protests at games against racial injustice.
“Why is the NFL getting massive tax breaks while at the same time disrespecting our Anthem, Flag and Country? Change tax law!” Trump wrote in a post on Twitter.
It was not clear what exactly Trump was demanding since the NFL gave up its tax-exempt status in 2015. The White House did not reply to requests for comment.
“The idea that we received some sort of tax break is not true so there is nothing really here to give up,” the NFL’s chief spokesman, Joe Lockhart, told reporters in a teleconference.
Trump, a Republican, last month called on NFL team owners to fire players who kneel during the “Star-Spangled Banner” to protest police violence against black Americans.
The protests have continued through the season, with some players taking a knee when the U.S. national anthem is played before each game and others standing arm-in-arm in a show of solidarity.
Critics contend the president is fanning the controversy to distract from issues including devastation in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, tensions with North Korea and difficulties in pushing healthcare and tax overhauls through U.S. Congress.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence walked out of a Sunday NFL game in Indianapolis after some players knelt. Critics suggested he had planned it as a publicity stunt.
The majority of NFL players are black, while Trump won the presidency with less support from black and Hispanic voters than any president in at least four decades.
Trump has squared off against the NFL before, having owned a team in the upstart United States Football League in the 1980s.
Trump and other owners pushed for a schedule that would have had the USFL play at the same time of year as the NFL. An anti-trust lawsuit against the NFL failed and the new league folded in 1985
The NFL Players Association has defended players’ right to protest.
The NFL was granted nonprofit tax-exempt status in 1942, but gave that up in 2015 amid criticism from members of the U.S. Congress.
The 10-year cost to taxpayers of the NFL exemption was $109 million, according to a 2015 estimate by Congress’ Joint Committee on Taxation. The teams are taxable for-profit entities.
The league and most team owners do not disclose financial information. A Sports Business Journal survey this year estimated the NFL’s income for the 2016-17 season at $14 billion.
NFL teams often seek government subsidies and rely on tax-exempt financing when they build stadiums or perform major renovations.
Those projects have cost federal taxpayers $3.7 billion since 2000, according to the Brookings Institution.
Trump has refused to disclose his own tax history, departing from a practice of U.S. presidents going back more than 40 years. Trump has said nobody cares about his tax returns, but critics say they could show conflicts of interest.
Additional reporting by Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas, Daniel Bases in New York and Steve Keating amd Frank Pingue in Toronto; Writing by Susan Heavey; Editing by Scott Malone and Meredith Mazzilli