Brett Favre has been justly criticized for his alleged role in diverting funds from Mississippi’s welfare fund to a pet project of a volleyball court. His daughter played for the team, and with about $135 million in career earnings, he could certainly have managed a donation himself. Mississippi is by some metrics the poorest state in the union, compounding the injustice.
“...[I]s there any way the media can find out where it came from and how much?” Favre reportedly asked Mississippi officials in a text.
Favre’s involvement is a sports story, even though it was broken by reporter Anna Wolfe covering the poverty beat for Mississippi Today. The financial story in sports tends to revolve around player salaries and broadcast rights deals, but that framing is a choice.
Although Favre’s self-interest in allegedly misdirecting $6 million is easy to dunk on, it is a familiar story in sports. Wealthy owners brazenly ask states and cities to pay for private stadiums and infrastructure all the time. Sure, they make an economic argument about the return on that “investment” that may or may not come to pass, but the base principle is the same — using public money for private sports facilities.
“Brett Favre is basically doing the same thing rich owners do,” said Southern Utah State sports economics professor David Berri. “Only Favre wasn’t threatening to leave the state.”
The cravenness of Favre’s alleged grift may seem uniquely corrosive. Oh, but it isn’t. It very much connects to the economic story that is sports, where public funds are diverted to sports projects all the time. Wealthy sports owners are constantly winning tax breaks for private arenas, and make no mistake, those public monies could be used for any number of worthy projects.
Earlier this year, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul came out cheering for the $850 million in public funds that will go to the Buffalo Bills’ new stadium. Owners Terry and Kim Pegula are worth an estimated $5.8 billion according to this USA Today look at the issue. The stadium deal may not have literally taken money away from the poorest among us, but then again, perhaps it did.
“It’s all public money,” Berri said.
Public money is what turns into money for the poor, and for roads, and for clean water. Every tax dollar that is used to fund a pristine NFL stadium with luxury boxes and personal seat licenses is money that cannot be used for the more general good. And the commissioned reports predicting that those taxpayer dollars will drive economic growth are good storytelling, but they can’t predict the future and they are documents designed to persuade public officials to part with their money.
And keeping the Browns in Baltimore, I mean Cleveland, can help when it comes to re-election. Plus it is clear from the excellent reporting at Mississippi Today that Gov. Phil Bryant loved him some Favre in the way that all politicians love votes.
There’s another angle to this story that Berri points out. Favre was allegedly funneling money to a facility for women’s volleyball. This is noteworthy because in and of itself, women’s sports infrastructure rarely gets the tax dollars that go to men’s sports. When they do, it is often a facility that is mixed-use.
“About a billion dollars has been spent on MLS Stadiums, but not the NWSL,” Berri said. “Billions on the NFL, billions on the NBA.”
This is the kind of story that a sports outlet would have once handled. But broadcasters are not in the business of tearing down sports legends. Sportswriting is less the first draft of history than the first draft of hero-worship far too often. Anna Wolfe was on Pablo Torre’s podcast this week to discuss the process of reporting this piece, and it’s illuminating. A poverty reporter scooped an army of sportswriters.
Where has the condemnation for Favre been? Sure, he’s violated some pretty core principles about the rich taking money from the poor, but this is something that professional sports team owners do to their communities on a regular basis. In exchange, leagues talk about the value a team adds to the community.
And for part of the community, that’s very true. But there is another part of the community that might prefer to have lead-free pipes, or proper drainage to prevent flooding.