Colin Kaepernick, the Vikings and the NFL’s Political Blacklisting

The NFL continually promotes itself as a meritocracy, a place where the most meritorious players make the teams and racial, ethnicity and socioeconomic status are irrelevant. They say it’s about performance, period.

But the glaring exception to the meritocracy rule is political speech.

Exercising free speech rights does seem to keep talented players off the field.  For instance, God help you if you are a player who speaks out in defense of human rights for gay people. Just ask former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe. After he advocated for gay rights, Kluwe was harassed by his coach and ultimately his NFL career ended abruptly, despite the fact that analysts say Kluwe’s statistics were some of the best in the Vikings 56-year history.

Then there’s Colin Kaepernick, who silently protested racial inequality and police brutality by taking a knee during the national anthem.  After exercising his free speech rights, Kaepernick also couldn’t get a job, despite having a better on-field performance record than half of the backup quarterbacks on NFL rosters, according to a Washington Post review.  An excerpt from the Post’s 2016  analysis:

If you look at Total Quarterback Rating (Total QBR), Kaepernick would be an upgrade over at least half of the backups in the league today, not including rookies. That list is 18 players long and includes Landry Jones, Case Keenum, Matt Barkley, Nick Foles, Scott Tolzien, Geno Smith, Paxton Lynch, Drew Stanton, Bryce Petty, Cardale Jones, Matt Schaub, Derek Anderson, Connor Cook, Brett Hundley, Ryan Mallett, Sean Mannion and Kellen Clemens. Based on down, distance and field position, he helped the 49ers score 30 more points than expected last season through his passing prowess, per ESPN Stats and Information. His 0.09 points added per pass attempt in 2016 is greater than 15 of the backup quarterbacks available or currently on a depth chart.

Kaepernick (55.2) ranked 23rd out of 30 qualified passers in 2016 QBR, placing him ahead of starters like Ryan Tannehill, Cam Newton, Carson Wentz, Eli Manning, Blake Bortles, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Case Keenum.

No one is suggesting he should be a starter in the NFL, but the numbers clearly show he would be a smart addition as a backup quarterback.

Despite these facts, this offseason the Minnesota Vikings avoided Kaepernick like he was Spergon Wynn. The same Vikings team that ran off the politically minded Kluwe wouldn’t even consider signing the politically minded Kaepernick, despite his solid body of work on the field, and a presumably modest salary requirements.

Instead, the Vikings signed Case Keenum, who is statistically inferior to Kaepernick, and Minnesota Gopher alum Mitch Leidner, a below average college player and undrafted rookie. While the hometown boy Leidner probably won’t make the team, he was given a chance. Meanwhile, a completely untested and lackluster prospect, Taylor Heinicke, will likely be named the other backup if the Vikings keep three quarterbacks.  So, Keenum, Heinike, and Leidner over Kaepernick, and 31 other teams also took a pass.  Meritocracy my ass.

The NFL is very patriotic, so it needs to save us from the Kluwes and Kaepernicks.  By the way, some of its patriotism is a profit center.   Until recently, the Pentagon was secretly paying NFL teams as much as a million dollars per game in tax dollars to hold a moment of silence to honor veterans.  What fans assumed to be the hometown team’s heartfelt gesture was actually paid patriotism — a big buck commercial to lure local kids into the military.

There is nothing more American than exercising your free speech rights to promote equality, particularly when you know it will come at a huge financial cost.  What Kluwe and Kaepernick have been doing to improve their country is far more patriotic than the NFL’s hollow Pentagon-financed pay-for-patriotism stagecraft.

It’s Good To Be Zygi

In 2011, taxpayers gave billionaire Minnesota Vikings owner Zygmunt “Zygi” Wilf quite a gift, an even bigger gift than some realized at the time.

Taxpayers invested about half a billion public dollars to help Mr. Wilf construct his $1.1 billion business headquarters, U.S. Bank Stadium.  The State contributed $348 million, and another $150 million came from a Minneapolis hospitality tax. (While it’s often reported that Mr. Wilf paid the remainder, much of the remainder was paid by private interests — the NFL, personal seat license holders, and U.S. Bank.)

This was an extraordinary taxpayer subsidy for any business owner, much less a controversial one worth $5.3 billion who has been found liable by a New Jersey court for breaking civil state racketeering laws.

But Mr. Wilf’s gift from taxpayers went well beyond that $498 million.  State leaders also allowed the billionaire to keep 100% of the increased business value that he has realized since his publicly subsidized business headquarters was authorized.  It turns out, that’s quite an increase.  According to a Forbes magazine estimate, in 2011, the year before the approval of the stadium, Wilf’s business was worth $796 million.  The most recent Forbes estimate puts the value at a breathtaking $2.2 billion.

That’s a tidy little increase of about $1.4 billion, with a “b,” over just six years.

Not all of that $1.4 billion gain is due to the new $1.1 billion stadium and its income-generating capacity, but much of it is.  It’s now clear that if the billionaire owner had financed his business’s building the old fashioned way — without taxpayers footing half of his bill — he would easily have recouped the full amount of his business investment, and then some.  Clearly, Mr. Wilf did not need us.

In 2011, many predicted that Minnesota taxpayers would be making a very rich man substantially richer.  But it’s still breathtaking to watch the money flooding in.  Skol Zygi.

Every Vikings Ticket Carries a $72 Taxpayer Subsidy?

Cursor_and_vikings_suites_-_Google_SearchAre Minnesota Vikings season ticket holders effectively government-dependent welfare queens?  After all, a state legislator’s analysis finds that every Vikings ticket benefits from a taxpayer subsidy of over $72.

If that analysis is correct, it would mean that over the next decade a season ticket-holding family of four will be benefiting from about $29,000 in subsidies from Minnesota taxpayers.  Over the three-decade life of the stadium, the 24 corporate benefactors sipping chablis in the Valhalla Suite will be benefiting from a government subsidy of about $521,000.

And we’re worried about poverty-stricken families on Food Stamps? 

Those figures are based on an analysis done by Minnesota State Senator John Marty (DFL-Roseville).  Senator Marty calculates that the entire taxpayer burden for subsidizing our new People’s/U.S. Bank Stadium is over $1.4 billion.  I’m not a public finance expert, but Senator Marty is a bright guy with access to public finance experts, and he seems to have done a lot of homework to develop this estimate.  He shows his homework in the spreadsheet provided below.

For purposes of the estimate, Senator Marty assumes that the Vikings will sell about 19.5 million tickets over the next 30 years.  While other non-Vikings events will also be held in the facility, Marty’s analysis only looks at Vikings tickets.

From there, it’s a simple calculation: $1.4 billion in subsidy÷19.5 million tickets=$72 subsidy per ticket.

Cursor_and_Subsidy_per_ticket_-_calculated_May_15_2012_pdf__page_2_of_2_Critics may quibble with the specifics of the Marty analysis.  But specifics aside, the undeniable fact remains that Minnesota taxpayers are on the hook for an enormous subsidy that looks to be much larger than the $498 million figure typically quoted during legislative debates.

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Is Zygi Claus As Generous As Local News Coverage Makes Him Out To Be?

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Billionaire Vikings owner Zygi Wilf is Minnesota’s Santa Claus. That’s essentially the message local news and sports coverage has hammered into Minnesotans’ heads over the last couple of years.

There has been a steady string of positive headlines promoting the Wilf’s stadium-related generosity: Twin Cities Business magazine: “Wilfs Commit $19.5 million More to New Vikings Stadium.”  Minnesota Public Radio:  “Vikings add 19.7 million to stadium contribution.”  WCCO-TV:  “Vikings, Wilfs To Commit to Additional $14M To New Stadium.”  The Saint Paul Pioneer Press:  “Vikings’ Zygi Wilf to increase stadium contribution.”  The Star Tribune:  “Vikings pony up $49 million for stadium accessories.”

Legendary Star Tribune sports columnist Sid Hartman regularly preaches about how fortunate we Minnesotans are to have the Wilfs lavishing us with additional stadium-related toys out of the goodness of their hearts.  For instance, under the homer headline “Vikings Stadium Will Be Spectacular,” a typical Hartman column tells Minnesotans to “take your hat off to the Wilf family,” and then essentially turns his column over to Vikings executive Lester Bagley’s pro-Wilf spin:

“The Wilf family has put in an additional $95 million since the bill passed the Legislature, because a lot of teams and communities get to this point and they start to cut things [and] we don’t want to cut things. We want to add things and make sure this is the best stadium in the league.

The Legislature had us agree to $477 million in team/private dollars and since the bill passed, on top of that $477 million, the Wilfs have agreed to contribute an additional $95 million and counting.”

In addition to his newspaper columns, Mr. Hartman even more frequently carries the same kind of Wilf cheerleading to the powerful radio airwaves of WCCO-AM.  KFAN-FM and 1500-ESPN also do their fair share to promote Zygi’s stadium contributions to their listeners.

The cumulative effect of all of this has been to paint a portrait of jolly old Zygi Claus and Lester the Elf continually delivering millions of dollars of new stadium toys to Minnesota’s football loving girls and boys.

I don’t blame reporters for those headlines.  The budget increases happened, and reporters need to cover developments like that. Moreover, I’m glad that the Wilfs are paying the extra costs.  It’s better than the alternative.

But as Mr. Wilf prepares to cut the ribbon for his new business asset later this summer, and have even more adoration heaped upon him by Mr. Hartman and others, it’s important to look at the broader context.

Others Paying “Owner’s Share”

Remember that the owner has had lots of help paying the so-called “owner’s share” of the stadium. The Vikings are getting hundreds of millions of dollars from a number of outside sources, such as a NFL loan program, seat licenses paid by fans, and enormous naming rights payments coming from U.S. Bank customers.  As Minnesota Public Radio reported:

“If the team gets the NFL loan, sells naming rights and charges for personal seat licenses according to these estimates, it would have about $115 million of the original $427 million pledge yet to pay. Compared to the upfront price tag on the stadium of $975 million, the amount left is about 12 cents on the dollar.”

Note that this April 2012 MPR analysis was done prior to the Wilf’s increasing their stadium contributions by an additional $95 million or so.   It also was done without solid numbers related to these three types of funding sources.

But details aside, the larger point remains:  What the owner is actually paying is only a small fraction of what is described in news coverage as “the owner’s share.”

Star Tribune sports columnist and 1500ESPN radio analyst Patrick Reusse also wrote an excellent 1500ESPN blog post asserting that about $450 million of the Wilf’s share will be paid by someone other than the Wilfs.  Reusse’s analysis was titled “Quite a Bonanza For Our Stadium Martyr.”  However, the radio station appears to have removed the post.

“Worst Deal From Sports Team”

Mr. Wilf is the generous one?  Really?  Minnesota taxpayers are bearing a heavy burden for the stadium, because the Wilfs insisted on it, during a decade worth of legislative warfare.  In naming the Twin Cities one of “5 cities getting the worst deals from sports teams,” MarketWatch asks:

“How do you get taxpayers to chip in $500 million on a more than $1 billion stadium when only one city, Indianapolis ($620 million), has ever paid that much?”

MarketWatch also notes that Minneapolitans “will end up paying $678 million over its 30-year payment plan once interest, operations and construction costs are factored in.”

I’m not informed enough about every stadium deal in the nation to say whether MarketWatch is correct that Minnesotans got one of the worst deals ever.  But it is important to understand that Minnesota taxpayers are being extraordinarily generous to the Vikings owners, not the other way around.

Wilfs Are Takers, Not Givers

By any reasonable analysis, the Wilfs are the big takers in this scenario.  They are not, as much of the news and sports coverage has implied or asserted, the big givers.  After all, this luxurious new taxpayer subsidized stadium won’t make taxpayers’ wealthier, but it is already making the Wilf’s much wealthier.

Forbes magazine estimates that the Vikings franchise, which reportedly was purchased by the Wilfs for about $600 million in 2005, was worth $796 million in 2011, the year before the stadium subsidy was approved.  By 2015, after the taxpayer subsidy was approved by the Minnesota Legislature and Governor Dayton, Forbes estimates the value of the Wilf’s business had spiked to $1.59 billion.

That’s a remarkably quick appreciation going to Zygi Claus’s bottom line in the post-stadium approval era.  Add what the owners will be pocketing due to large increases in stadium-related revenue in the coming years, and it’s pretty clear that the Wilfs are making out like bandits.

Precise analysis is pretty much impossible on this subject, because executives are not nearly as forthcoming about details related to the loan, seat licenses and naming rights as they are about contributions. However, this is roughly what it looks like to me:  Zygi Claus is investing something in the neighborhood of $200 million to see his business valuation increase by at least $800 million, and probably quite a bit more over time.

None of this is illegal, or all that unusual.  But it also is not Santa Claus.

My Vikings Legacy Brick

Vikings_brickMy kids are all too aware of my unhealthy obsession with the Minnesota Vikings, so for Christmas they splurged and got me a “Legacy Brick”, which will be part of the plaza on the front porch of the Vikings new stadium.

I’m embarrassed to admit how much this gift pleased me.  After all, I’m a grown ass man. I understand this is just an appeal to vanity and hero worship as a way to have rubes like me finance an asset that will make billionaire Vikings owner Zygi Wilf wealthier.

But come on, it’s granite, with my name on it, in the Vikings’ front yard! How AWESOME is that? The Vikings and I were both born in 1961, and I and other family members, living and dead, have closely followed them for as long as I can remember.  This is a chance to memorialize our collective misery.

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Better yet for a guy who likes to write, the accompanying brochure pledges that “your personal message” will be engraved on the brick. Hot damn, a blank slate!

As a long-suffering fan of the historically snake bit franchise, my mind immediately went to trolling. That is, I considered capturing a grievances in granite.

For instance, in homage to the embattled offensive tackle Matt Kalil, who fans particularly love to hate when the offense is sputtering, I considered a paver inscribed, “Walk all over me, just like Kalil gets walked on.” Petty, but gratifying.  Similarly, to celebrate the storied career of the plodding tight end Jimmy Kleinsasser, I thought about submitting “This brick is faster than Kleinsasser.”  Or to honor running back Adrian Peterson (AP), who has 33 maddening fumbles as part of his Hall of Fame career, I was tempted to go with “Me: One on the ground for my team. AP: 33.”

And then there are the numerous scandals that could have been cathartic fodder for brick copy.  The Love Boat sex scandal.  The Adrian Peterson child abuse.  The endless player prosecutions.  The arrogance and immaturity of Randy Moss.

I also considered commemorating my own lameness as a fan. I waxed nostalgic about a frigid day in December 1980 when a boyhood friend and I left a game at Met Stadium early. As it turns out, we missed seeing the greatest comeback victory in Vikings history against the Cleveland Browns, only to be scolded by a highway patrolman during our solemn drive back to South Dakota. The paver could mock us, just as the officer did that day: “You boys left early, huh? 12-14-80.”

That friend also suggested a granite haiku that captured the epic tragedy that is Vikings fandom:

Left early against Browns,
Take a knee, wide left Atlanta.
Life of a Vikings fan.

I don’t mind telling you, that one made me misty.

Political animal that I am, I also really would have loved to make a political statement, such as “Bought this brick for a billionaire.” That would really stick it to The Man, and bring some progressive awareness to the old town square!  It also would effectively clarify that “yeah, I’m a chump alright, but I’m a politically savvy chump!”

Naturally, I considered Packer hating: “Packers fans got 13 championships. I got this brick.” I also wondered if I could get this past the censors “Puck the Fackers.” See what I did there?

But alas, after all of my fantasizing, I finally read the fine print on the Vikings’ website:

Discriminatory, political, offensive, or inappropriate messages as determined by the Minnesota Vikings and MSFA will be declined. References to other NFL teams will not be accepted. The Minnesota Vikings and MSFA reserve the right to approve all brick inscriptions. Inscriptions that do not conform to these inscription guidelines or that are deemed unsuitable will be declined and will require a new inscription to be submitted.

My creative visions all were ruined by the Vikings. Between this censorship and a rather severe character restriction, my options were very limited. So, I played it straight:

Skol or uffda,
bleeding purple
since 1961.
Loveland Family

Booooooring. Schmaltzy!

Hey, but it’s my name, in granite, in the Vikings’ front yard!

Who Negotiated That Stadium Deal Again?

Vikings PR people like to tell Minnesotans that the team’s owner, billionaire Zygi Wilf, is paying about 60 percent of the ever-growing $1.2 billion stadium cost.  The truth, as Star Tribune/1500ESPN columnist Patrick Reusse pointed out back in May 2012, is that something like $450 million of the Wilf’s share will be paid by people other than the Wilfs. For instance, season ticket holders will be making exorbitant seat license payments to the Wilfs, the National Football League will be paying a subsidized “loan” to the Wilfs, and U.S. Bank will be making naming rights payments to the Wilfs.  All of this will offset the Wilf’s stadium costs by about $450 million.

Taking all of that into consideration, Mr. Wilf looks to be shelling out more in the neighborhood of  $250 million of his own money, or 21% of the cost of the $1.2 billion total, not the 60 percent the Vikings claim.  It’s difficult for an outsider to come up with precise numbers, but that seems like a pretty fair, pardon the pun, ballpark estimate.

Meanwhile, state and local taxpayers are paying about half a billion dollars for the Vikings’ stadium, or about 40 percent percent of the stadium cost.  In other words, taxpayers are paying significantly more than the billionaire owner.

Despite being the majority investor, taxpayers have no say in the name of the stadium, and will be getting 0 percent of the estimated $10 million per year of corporate naming rights payments that U.S. Bank will be paying over the next two decades.  The billionaire Wilfs will be getting 100 percent of the $220 million in naming rights payments.

Formerly_People_s_Stadium

mao_tiananmen_squareIt’s bad enough that U.S. Bank looks to be getting more corporate visibility than Chairman Mao demanded for himself at Tiananmen Square. To add insult to aesthetic injury, taxpayers aren’t getting a single penny for putting up with U.S. Bank’s excessive corporate graffiti.

And so ladies and gentlemen, I give you U.S. Bank Stadium, formerly billed to skeptical taxpayers as the “people’s stadium.”  State leaders should be doing some retrospective soul-searching about how they got so thoroughly fleeced by the Wilfs on this deal.

If Vikings Pick Punters “Strictly Based On Performance,” They Should Bring Back Kluwe

kluwe_censoredIn the wake of Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe’s advocacy of gay marriage, Vikings Special Teams Coach Mike Priefer publicly said he was tired of Kluwe-related distractions, privately told Kluwe that the gays should be rounded up and nuked, and fired Kluwe and replaced him with an untested rookie.

Despite the timing of all these events, the Vikings vehemently denied that Kluwe was fired due to his activism. The Vikings released a statement assuring Minnesotans:

“Chris was released strictly based on his football performance.”

There you have it.  Not salary. Not age (he was 31, relatively young for punters). Not activism. “Strictly based his football performance.” The Vikings assured us that they run a pure meritocracy, and Kluwe’s performance just wasn’t up to snuff.

But that was always a head-scratcher. After all, the statistics show that Kluwe was the best punter in Vikings history. For instance, Kluwe is at the top of the heap in Vikings history in career punt average, at 44.4 yards per punt. Of course, punting is also about placement, but Kluwe is also number one in Vikings history in punts placed inside the 20-yard line.

Despite Kluwe’s impressive performace-based records, Kluwe was fired and replaced by Jeff Locke, a rookie who was completely untested in the NFL. Priefer assured Vikings fans that Locke had bested Kluwe during a brief closed-door punt-off at the Vikings’ practice facility. So, while Kluwe was statistically the best punter in Vikings history, Locke was, Coach Priefer assured us, going to be even better. Kluwe wasn’t even get a chance to compete for his job at training camp.  One closed-door punt-off supervised by Priefer, and the most accomplished punter in Vikings history was shown the door.

How is that working out for Priefer and the Vikings? Kluwe’s replacement Jeff Locke was named by the wonky analysts at Pro Football Focus as the single worst punter in the NFL. Bleacher Report elaborates:

While Kluwe may have been outspoken and a hassle at times, he certainly was able to get the job done from a punting perspective, something Locke has not been able to do through nearly two seasons.

According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Locke has received a combined rating of negative-20.8 since he entered the league in 2013, which is far and away the worst rating of any punter during this time fame. His negative-10.2 rating this season ranks dead last among 33 analyzed punters.

If it’s really true that Kluwe was replaced by Locke “strictly based on his football performance,” maybe Coach Priefer, or Priefer’s replacement, should be bringing back Kluwe for the 2015 season.

– Loveland

Note:  This post was also published by MinnPost.