Sports Moguls Carve Out Public Spoils

Adams and Hochul give the powerful what they want. You pay the Bills.


When Mayor Eric Adams announced that he would permit unvaccinated New York–based athletes and entertainers to perform in stadiums and arenas while keeping a private sector mandate in place for everyone else, he managed to infuriate conservatives and liberals alike. Sports fans, desperate for the unvaccinated Kyrie Irving or the (probably) unvaccinated Aaron Judge to play at home, rejoiced, though there was plenty of unease about the untold number of vendors, janitors, and stadium employees who’d had to get vaccinated against Covid or lose their jobs altogether.

Adams, in March, defended the double standard on grounds that were somewhat understandable. Since he’d decided, earlier that month, to end the required vaccine passport for indoor activities—following the lead of other major cities—a strange spectacle had been created of the unvaccinated Irving being permitted to enter Barclays Center but not to take the court with his team. Meanwhile, unvaccinated players from other cities were allowed to play at Barclays and Madison Square Garden. The private sector rule did not apply to them.

For a short while it had seemed that Adams would be willing to ignore the cries of local sports fans and team owners. He had already fired more than a thousand public sector workers who’d refused vaccination. He was in deep, defending a policy created by his predecessor, Bill de Blasio. Though other large cities take Covid protocols seriously, New York is the only place in the U.S. that mandates Covid vaccination for public and private sector employees. It was a standard Adams appeared ready to safeguard indefinitely.

Instead, opening day loomed—and it became clear which power brokers in the sports world really mattered. Both the Yankees and the Mets have unvaccinated players, and ownership of both teams did not want to see their stars barred from playing home games. Mets owner Steve Cohen, a hedge-fund billionaire, had already contributed $1.5 million to a super PAC backing Adams last year. For the Yankees, it was team president Randy Levine, a former deputy mayor under Rudy Giuliani, taking the lead in negotiations. Both men were determined not to let Adams keep superstars like Judge and Jacob deGrom from playing in front of hometown fans. Too much money was at stake.

Derided as the “Kyrie Carve Out,” Adams’s decision was really about bowing to the power of the Yankees and Mets. The problem, of course, is that it really was hypocritical to subject working-class New Yorkers to a vaccine mandate that did not apply to millionaire athletes. If Adams wanted to be a just leader, he really had two options: End the private sector mandate altogether, or keep enforcing it for everyone. Many on the left wanted the latter choice, though there were arguments for ditching the private sector mandate in that arena too.

Nearly 88% of adult New Yorkers are fully vaccinated. Realistically, this number cannot be pushed much higher, and no matter what happens, there will always be vaccine holdouts. Omicron already tore through this highly vaccinated city over this past winter. The vaccines are great at keeping people out of the hospital, but don’t do much to stop the spread of highly contagious variants. The city must do more to encourage booster shots and ensure that the most vulnerable New Yorkers—the elderly, especially—are vaccinated and boosted. A vast majority of the people who have died of Covid are 65 or older.

Public health officials don’t want to walk away from the private sector mandate, though other large cities, such as Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles, don’t have them. The Police Benevolent Association, the NYPD’s largest union, is suing the city over the firing of unvaccinated cops, and has argued in court that Adams’s “carve out” for athletes and entertainers was arbitrary, undermining any rationale for the policy. There’s a small possibility that the PBA could win in court, scrapping both the private and public sector mandates.

In the meantime, Adams has hoped to push past the controversy and focus on other matters, like the city’s rising crime rate. His decision-making, though, reflects his priorities—and what kind of mayor he’s actually been so far. A product of the outer-borough working class, Adams has begun to sell out the very communities that voted for him. The bus driver from South Jamaica was held to a very different vaccination standard than the New York Yankees outfielder. No exemption was made for the Barclays Center hot dog vendor. Adams wouldn’t even consider it.

In part, that’s because he’s enraptured by high society. As a candidate for mayor, he was happy to fundraise from real estate and Wall Street elites. He proudly ventures out to expensive nightclubs and parties with celebrities. None of this would be a problem if he were a genuine populist, a progressive with a certain sartorial flair who still managed to deliver for vulnerable New Yorkers. But Adams is not a true populist. He merely plays one on television. In June, the Rent Guidelines Board will decide how much to hike rent on the more than one million tenants who live in rent-stabilized apartments. Adams, a landlord himself, is largely sympathetic to building owners.

It’s likely rents will rise significantly next year; landlords have been grumbling about growing fuel and maintenance costs while smarting from years of rent freezes under the de Blasio administration. They want payback and Adams appears ready, through his appointees, to deliver for them. On April 14, the Rent Guidelines Board released reports recommending rent increases of 2.7% to 4.5% on one-year leases for rent-stabilized units, and 4.3% to 9% on two-year leases. The ranges are starting points, and the board is free to ignore the suggestions. One thing is sure, Adams will not be advocating for rent freezes as de Blasio did.

Three months ago, the state ended its pandemic-induced eviction moratorium. Predictably, cases piled up in housing court—so many that now legal services groups such as the Legal Aid Society say they can’t keep up with demand from tenants in need of legal representation. Rent hikes on stabilized apartments will only worsen this problem in the months to come. Adams has been mostly silent on the matter. His ally in Albany, Governor Kathy Hochul, ended the moratorium and has continued, in other ways, to prioritize the wealthy over the working class. She ignored the demands of Democrats in the legislature and scrapped a new housing voucher program for the homeless from the state budget. Instead, she engineered a billion-dollar taxpayer giveaway to the billionaire owners of the Buffalo Bills, who were threatening to move the football team if they didn’t get a new stadium. It is the largest public subsidy for a football stadium in American history; the egregious deal was brokered in secret and rushed into the state budget shortly before the fiscal deadline. Lawmakers had little choice but to rubber-stamp the agreement, because Hochul had baked it into a $220 billion fiscal document. It was a dare to Democrats—if you vote against the Bills deal, you vote down funding for childcare and public education.

Many progressives did vote against the budget, but not enough to derail it. Hochul had her victory. It was another reminder that the extremely wealthy owners of sports franchises can always get what they want out of government. When the pressure came, Adams and Hochul buckled, and the working class was ignored again.  ❖

Ross Barkan is an author and journalist from New York City.

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