Christie Plays Politics With the Cowboys
In the days since the Hug Seen 'Round the World between Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, details of their relationship continue to emerge -- along with questions of ethics and propriety.
The often unsavory intersection between politics and sports is as old as the institutions themselves, and the public has grown all too accustomed to seeing public officials in luxury boxes. But bromance jokes aside, the Christie-Jones incident is significant because it shows just how many factors may be at play when these two spheres of power and money collide.
The Wall Street Journal reported that Christie's flight and luxury suite ticket to last Sunday's playoff game were both paid for and provided by Jones. Christie's camp defended the gifts, noting that in New Jersey, "the governor may accept gifts, favors, services, gratuities, meals, lodging or travel expenses from relatives or personal friends that are paid for with personal funds."
This "friends" exception was made possible by an executive order from former Governor Jim McGreevey -- which should raise more than a few eyebrows on its own, as McGreevey resigned the post in 2004 after admitting he had given his male lover a sweetheart job in state government. But the problem with this explanation goes beyond the dubious legal justification. As noted by the Journal and the International Business Times, Christie and Jones have a business relationship that should supersede any purported "friendship" when it comes to conflicts of interest. Along with the New York Yankees and Checketts Partners Investment Fund, the Cowboys jointly own Legends Hospitality, which provides the concession and merchandising services at AT&T Stadium in Dallas and Yankee Stadium in New York.
In March 2013, Legends was selected to operate the observation deck at One World Trade Center, with a winning bid of $875 million over the 15-year lease. The building, also known as the Freedom Tower, is overseen by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which is controlled by the governors of both states. The selection, as detailed in this press release, was thus made by Christie and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.
Back in 2007, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani was investigated for possible ethics violations after it was revealed that he accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of tickets and merchandise from the Yankees, including four personalized World Series rings. As mayor, Giuliani had pushed hard to get the team a new stadium on Manhattan's West Side. When that repeatedly (and thankfully) failed, he hurriedly granted the Yankees $400 million in taxpayer money for a new ballpark in the Bronx as his time in office wound down. (In 2002, incoming mayor Michael Bloomberg -- the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP -- quickly nixed the plan, but the Yankees would still eventually receive significant public subsidies and tax breaks for their new stadium, which opened in 2009.)
The Giuliani/Yankees situation demonstrates the more straightforward sweetheart deals we tend to see in sports, usually involving stadium subsidies, but it's not unlike the case of Christie and Jones. Though Legends's bid may well have been the best offer, it's not unfair or cynical to ask what each side gets out of the relationship. You'd think it would behoove Christie to avoid even the appearance of wrongdoing given the myriad scandals he's faced involving the Port Authority and conflicts of interest. But he also stands to gain far more than simply a few thousand dollars worth of tickets and travel -- namely, political capital.
At first glance, Christie's relationship would seem a political error. New Jersey houses the New York Giants, while the southern part of the state tends to root for the Philadelphia Eagles, and the Cowboys are hated by both fanbases. But Christie's always been a Cowboys fan, and he's not the first politician to root for a rival without suffering at the polls -- current New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio is an admitted Red Sox fan.
More important, Christie's allegiance to America's Team could benefit his push to become America's president. Experts agree that Christie would be unlikely to win his home state in a national election, but having the support of a powerful Republican like Jones could go a long way in Texas. Jones has hosted the likes of George W. Bush and Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus in his owner's box, and his potential to affect campaign finances extends far beyond the contributions he has made to the GOP over the years. Jones was among the Texas "bundlers" for John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign -- people who tap into their high-income friend network to gather large group donations beyond individual contribution limits.
While having Jones on his side proved unsuccessful for McCain, having a cozy relationship with the Texas sports elite certainly helped Bush, who owned a controlling interest in the Texas Rangers in the 1990s and was highly active in the organization as the team's managing general partner. "More than a dozen current and former owners and family members are among the president's top re-election fundraisers," the Associated Press reported in 2004. Former Rangers part-owners Marshall Payne and Craig Stapleton each raised at least $200,000, while then-Rangers owner Tom Hicks and Houston Astros chairman Drayton McLane each raised at least $100,000.
Teams have a lot at stake when it comes to their political interests. From the various antitrust and tax exemptions to public stadium subsidies to monopolistic media rights, owners can protect their business interests by keeping their hands in the power structure. The relationship between Christie and Jones is notable for involving a financial boon outside of sports, but it's the same old story of mutual backscratching among the political and sports business elite.
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