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Public Funds for Private Stadiums: On the Bills’ Future Home

photograph of celebrating crowd during gameday at Bills stadium

Since moving to upstate NY in 2018, I’ve become a pretty keen Buffalo Bills fan. And now $850 million of public money is being invested into a new stadium for them – though the Bills are not the only team to benefit from public funds.

Should we really be using tax dollars for such frivolities as sport? Why should billionaire team owners receive public money? Why should taxpayers fund private sports stadiums when, despite long-held opinion, they do not seem to have the expected economic benefit for the local area?

I think the key response here is to note that money should not be governments’ only concern. No doubt the Bills are a source of “civic pride.” Sports teams play an important role in many communities. Erin Tarver has argued that fandom can be an important part of a person’s identity. It can bind us together in communities, where thousands of people are cheering for one team – united by nothing more than a shared love for their team. Even fans of perpetual losers benefit (perhaps more so: a recent study suggests that fans of unsuccessful teams are more tightly bonded to one another than fans of more successful clubs. Good news for Bills fans.)

These connections are deep and important to many people. Andrew Edgar goes so far as to argue that these teams are akin to sacred objects for many of us. Kyle Fruh, Alfred Archer, and I have used this to argue that this means that when owners abuse the club, they’re doing something wrong: they’re trashing something of important cultural value.

This puts obligations on owners. For one, this lets us say that when the Bills owners were threatening to relocate the team they were doing something more than simply considering moving their business.

Finding a new home for the Bills would not just mean that some folks lost their jobs, it would mean that the focal point of this fan community was being ripped away. Something sacred was being destroyed.

It also seems to me that this places an obligation on local governments (in this case, New York State and Erie County). No doubt the Bills are very important to Buffalo and the surrounding area. To take a personal observation: if you go outside at 1pm on a Sunday in Rochester – an hour or two away from Buffalo – you won’t see many people. Everyone is watching the Bills.

Now, New York State spends over a hundred million dollars on arts funding every year. This is a good thing, but it seems like snobbery if we are to say that these important cultural things deserve state spending but football does not. (We can haggle over the amount it is fair to spend!)

So, if we should spend government money on cultural objects, we can make a reasonable case for spending money on the Bills stadium because the Bills are an important cultural object. Even if there will be no great economic benefit, New York State is right to invest if it helps preserve something culturally important.

Yet that only speaks to the general principle of using public money to fund private enterprise when it comes to sports stadiums – there are plenty of other reasons why we might object to funding the new Bills stadium.

Here is one objection: there are lurking objections about how much money governments should spend on cultural objects. Part of the point of the recent Just Stop Oil protest that doused (the glass in front of) a van Gogh with paint was to highlight our reactions. People seem to care more about art than they do about people being unable to heat their homes or buy food. No doubt there is something to this, but I think most people would agree governments should spend some money on things that help to enhance our lives, even if there are other pressing concerns.

Still, this investment can seem perverse, especially when, as Shalise Manza Young has pointed out, you look at the conditions poor people need to meet in order to get state assistance. Why should the rich owners of the Bills get state money when people starve and Buffalo, like much of upstate New York, has racially-driven poverty problems?

Now, I do not know how the deal is financed, but one solution here would be to make clear that the money is for the Bills, not for their owners. Or, we can see it as a joint-investment between the state and the owners into Western New York, rather than a payment that will just benefit these owners. Otherwise, critics are right when they say New York is “using public money for private business ventures, especially for the benefit of wealthy owners like the Pegulas.

Sustaining important cultural objects is a worthwhile goal for governments, but lining the pockets of modern-day oil barons is not.

Whether this is a matter of the optics of the Bills stadium deal, or whether the deal simply does benefit the wealthy Pegula family without being too concerned with what should matter – the cultural benefit of the Bills – is an important question, and I don’t have the answers!

Beyond that, we need to look at the investment in terms of a public good outside of sports. One criticism is that by building the new stadium next to the current one in the suburb of Orchard Park (which is nearly 95% White and has a 2020 median income of nearly $90,000) rather than Buffalo (which is less than 50% White and has a 2020 median income of just under $40,000), the state is failing to invest in communities that have been under-invested in for far too long and continuing to perpetuate racial injustices.

We also need to ask whether it helps to create goods, like more walkable communities? Does it help to improve public transit? Well, no, because it’s going to be built outside of the City of Buffalo and will inevitably come with the sprawl of parking lots that accompany NFL stadiums.

There are even sporting criticisms: this stadium will never host a Superbowl, because it doesn’t have a roof – in Buffalo. Even setting aside Superbowl games, there is always the chance for some terrible weather to really disrupt a game – and that isn’t something the Bills should risk, what with Josh Allen leading what is likely to be a long-term force in the NFL.

And that is to say nothing of the potential corruption involved, nor of the fact money is being taken from Native Americans and isn’t being invested back into Native communities. My sense here is that the money was an effort to make sure that the Bills stayed in Buffalo – or, rather, Orchard Park. It is money that should be spent to keep the Bills around, but it is far from clear to me that this money is truly for the people of Buffalo, and this investment seems to fail to achieve a raft of other worthwhile goals that any such ambitious project should aim at.

University Divestment from Fossil Fuels

photograph of campus building at McGill University

This month, tenured McGill University Philosophy professor Gregory Mikkelson resigned from his position. Mikkelson explained that he could no longer work for an institution that professes a commitment to a reduction to its carbon footprint, all the while continuing to invest in fossil fuels. Mikkelson argued further that the university board’s continued refusal to divest from fossil fuels is in opposition to the democratic mandate in favor of divestment that has developed across the campus.

Mikkelson’s actions make a powerful statement in a general academic climate in which divestment from fossil fuels has strong support among faculty and students. Some universities have taken action in response. In September 2019, the University of California system announced that they would be cutting fossil fuels from their over $80 billion dollar investment portfolio, citing financial risk as a major motivating factor. The University of California system is the largest educational system in the country, so this move sets an important precedent for other universities under pressure to do the same thing.

Many prominent schools across the country are resisting pressure to divest. On January 3rd, students of Harvard and Yale Universities staged a protest of their respective universities’ continued support for the fossil fuel industry by storming the field of the annual football game between Harvard and Yale, delaying the game by almost an hour. This is only one such protest; there have been many others over a span of almost a decade. Students, faculty members, and staff have occupied the offices of administrators, held sit-ins, and conducted rallies.

Those who wish to defend continued investment in the fossil fuel industry make the argument that universities have a fiduciary obligation to students, faculty, and staff. As a result, they need to maintain the most promising investment portfolio possible. They need financial security in order to continue to provide a thriving learning environment. This involves investing in the market that actually exists rather than an idealized market that doesn’t. A portfolio that includes diversified investments in sustainable renewable sources of energy would be ideal, but many think that the current political climate provides little evidence that this approach would be a wise investment strategy. President Trump can be relied upon to thwart the advance of renewable energy at every turn. At this point, it is unclear how many more years universities will need to make investment decisions that take into account the political realities of living under this administration. Those who make this argument contend that the primary obligation of a university—first and foremost—is to provide education to students. Universities can fulfill this obligation if and only if they are financially secure.

Relatedly, some argue that, in keeping with universities’ general fiduciary responsibilities, institutions should avoid making investment decisions that are overly political. Investments that look like political statements could deter future donors, which would limit the potential services the university could provide. In response to this argument, critics are quick to point out that continued investment in fossil fuels is a political statement. Crucially, it is a political statement with which the heart and soul of the university—faculty, staff, and students—tend to strenuously disagree.

Those who want to defend continued investment in the fossil fuel industry argue further that investors are in a better position to change the behavior of fossil fuel companies because they have voting powers on crucial issues. Shareholders are in a position to vote directors and even entire boards out of their jobs if they do not acknowledge and take meaningful action on climate change. Shareholders are in a position to force transparency when it comes to publishing substantive emissions data. When fossil fuel industries are forced to acknowledge the threat that they pose, they may lead the transition to renewables from within.

Many critics are dubious about the authenticity of this proposal. Even if we take it at face value, we don’t have much reason to believe that this approach is motivating the fossil fuel industry at anything approaching the rate we would need to see in order to achieve the necessary change in the right timeframe. To ward off, or, at the very least, minimize, the threat posed by climate change, we need to take significant meaningful action now, rather than waiting the indeterminate amount of time it might take for the fossil fuel industry to make internal changes that seem to be decidedly against their own interests.

Many disagree with the claim that continued investment in fossil fuels provides a university with financial security. In fact, the entire University of California system disagrees. The reasons the UC system offered for their decision to divest were financial rather than ethical. Their argument is that abandoning investment in fossil fuels now in favor of developing a portfolio of sustainable renewable resources cuts their losses later and is consistent with the inevitable green path forward. It simply isn’t possible to continue in the direction we’re headed. We will inevitably change course.

When academic institutions refuse to divest, faculty and students are put in an uncomfortable position—it is difficult for a person who is concerned about climate change to continue in their role at such an institution while avoiding the charge of personal hypocrisy. Students work hard to earn their spots at universities, and they pay dearly for them. The academic job market is notoriously competitive, and professor positions are extremely hard to come by. Many find Mikkelson’s actions admirable, but recognize that they are not in a position to follow in his footsteps.

Divestment sends a powerful message—institutions of higher education will no longer provide financial support to industries that contribute to climate change. The very nature and mission of universities cast such institutions in pivotal roles to usher in a new, healthier, greener future. Far from shying away from this role, universities should embrace it as a natural fit—after all, they ideally prepare young citizens to design, and thrive in, a promising future. Mikkelson recognized that refusal on the part of higher education to divest from fossil fuels is hypocrisy on the part of the university itself—it is antithetical to the goals of excellence in innovation, empathy and compassion toward our fellow living beings and respect for the ecosystems in which we live, as well as clear, rigorous critical thinking that includes the ability to give appropriate weight to supporting evidence.

What’s more, fossil fuel companies have intentionally obfuscated the facts when it comes to the harms posed by climate change. This practice of putting significant roadblocks in the pathway to knowledge about critical issues is not consistent with the pursuit of knowledge that characterizes a college or university. If an academic institution is to act with integrity, it should not continue to support campaigns of misinformation, especially when the stakes are so high.

The Church, the State, and a Missouri Playground

In one of the final rulings before the Supreme Court’s summer recess, the court found that it was unconstitutional to deny civil funds to a Missouri church on the basis that it was a religious institution. Trinity Lutheran Church applied for a grant that would re-surface its playground with recycled tires, creating a safer rubber surface for its preschool children to play on. Forty-four non-profit organizations applied for the grants, and the church’s application ranked fourth among them, but it was denied the grant on the grounds that it was a religious institution and thereby is an ineligible beneficiary of these public benefits.

Continue reading “The Church, the State, and a Missouri Playground”