Nearly 100 million people will watch this year’s Super Bowl in Phoenix, Arizona. But most viewers will never know about a disturbing bit of backstory to this year’s event—how the NFL tried to collude with a local government to attack free speech.
A Phoenix city ordinance, likely lobbied for by the league, would have required local property owners to get the NFL’s approval for any advertisement they wanted to put up on properties in the downtown area. According to the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), the city dubbed this nearly two square mile area a “clean zone” and would’ve required business owners to get permits to display “posters, flyers, banners, pennants, flags, window paintings and even balloons” from January 15 to February 19. As a condition of that permit, they’d need to get permission from the NFL or Arizona’s Super Bowl Host Committee.
The idea was to give the NFL the ability to more closely control advertising in the area while tourism spikes for the event. For example, they could block anyone from displaying Coke ads, since the league formally partners with Pepsi.
FIRE blasted this measure as a “dystopian rule that violates the First Amendment.” Maricopa County Judge Bradley Astrowsky evidently agrees. He just heard a case brought by a local business owner who challenged the ordinance and said, “The city of Phoenix is letting the NFL decide what I can and cannot say on my own property. That’s not right.”
After hearing the case, the judge struck down the city’s ordinance on February 2 and called it “an unconstitutional delegation of government power” to a private entity.
These kinds of laws are not new and have cropped up in localities that hosted past Super Bowls as well. But they’re absurd. The NFL has no right to control what other people can do on their properties. And local governments should be in the business of protecting the rights of their constituents, not catering to corporate interests and granting them special privileges in the law.
That’s crony capitalism at its very worst. And, unfortunately, it’s not the only way the government does special favors for the NFL. For example, many NFL teams receive billions in special tax exemptions and subsidies from local governments that force working taxpayers to subsidize a $17-billion-dollar sports league.
Whether you love or hate football, regardless, this is outrageous. It shouldn’t be too much to ask that the NFL pays its own way and plays by the same rules as everyone else.