There’s a reason why football is called America’s pastime. Americans —if they watch the sport or not— are unconsciously paying for it. Controversy brought on by NFL star Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the National Anthem last season, and subsequently looking for employment this season, has put the organization founded in 1920 under a microscope.

Heightening the issue, in a recent speech President Trump called those that are kneeling “son of bitches.” Immediately, Kaepernick’s protest about police brutality and systematic racism became about standing up against Trump —and while that was never the intent of the political gesture, if we are going to analyze the role of government in the NFL, we should break in down clearly.

Here are six ways the NFL and government are directly linked.

Million-Dollar Supporters.
It’s been widely reported that seven NFL team owners donated to Donald Trump’s inaugural committee. And it wasn’t just small change— Dan Snyder of the Redskins, Shad Khan of the Jaguars, Bob McNair of the Texans, Robert Kraft of the Patriots, Woody Johnson of the Jets and Stan Kroenke of the Rams donated $1 million each. Also, the NFL’s marketing division gave $100k to Trump.

The National Anthem.
In 2009 the government began having football players come out and stand for the National Anthem— as a way to market military recruitment. Previously, players were in the locker room during the National Anthem. Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake delved into this issue in a 2015 report that revealed the Department of Defense spent $6.8 million in advertising contracts with different sports teams since 2012 —with the majority going to the NFL.

Congressional Co-Sign.
The Sports Broadcasting Act of 1961 is considered the first piece of legislation to allow financial carte blanche by the NFL. The amendment essentially allowed professional football teams to pool together when negotiating radio and television broadcasts rights —with CBS being the lead station. Signed by President John F. Kennedy, this law was the first action by the federal government that would spur the growth of a multi-billion-dollar enterprise.

Non-Profit Status. 
Believe it or not, the NFL is non-profit. The IRS expanded Section 501(c)6 of the Internal Revenue Code, which “provides for the exemption of business leagues, chambers of commerce, real estate boards, boards of trade and professional football leagues, which are not organization.” As noted by The Washington Post, this exception means the NFL’s headquarters in New York led by Goodell is spared tax payments that some estimate to be $10 million annually— because the teams and not the NFL make money.

Tax-Payer’s Stadiums.
Football is a recreational sport, and recreational sports are a tourist attraction. With that said, it should be noted that several football stadiums have been built with some or all-public financing, according to David Goodfriend. That public financing comes from taxpayers dollars that rack up to hundreds of millions of dollars for the building and maintence of these venues all over the country.

Corporate Ties. 
You know those gorgeous suites for corporate employees and sponsor brands? As reported by CNN Money, NFL teams sell between $1.5 billion to $2 billion worth of luxury and high-end club seats a year, according to Bill Dorsey, the chairman of the Association of Luxury Suite Directors. A single suite can cost as much as $750,000 a season. Almost all suites and club tickets are bought by corporate clients, which write the cost off as a business entertainment expense.



September 13, 2016
Two of the study co-authors, Carolin Seele and Stefan Meldau, collect buds for the subsequent analysis of plant hormones and tannins. (Bettina Ohse)

Picture the woods in early spring — the misty, pale green appearance of trees just starting to sprout, the young deer munching their way across the sun-dappled forest floor.

But behind that placid exterior, a battle of wits is raging. And despite not having a brain or any central nervous system to speak of, the trees are pretty wily.

In a study published in the most recent edition of the journal Functional Ecology, scientists in Leipzig, Germany describe the brilliant way that wild maple and beech trees figure out when roe deer are eating them — and enact a strategy to make sure the critters don’t return for another snack.

The stakes are high for young trees. If they can head off the threat from deer early, the saplings have a chance of catching up with their unbitten peers and making it to adulthood. But too much nibbling will make the trees stunted, or condemn them to death.

So the plants have evolved a complex set of responses specifically to deal with herbivore threats. Whenever a branch is snipped — by a deer, insect or human — trees released “wound hormones” called jasmonates. These chemicals help with the recovery process. They also play a role in interplant communication; when one plant releases jasmonates, their neighbors start to ramp up their defenses against disease and insect attacks as well. It’s like a forest-wide alarm system.

But the trees studied in Leipzig seemed able to recognize specific threats, and tailor their response accordingly. When a roe deer was eating their branches, the trees released a second set of chemicals: first the hormone salicylic acid, then bitter chemicals called tannins. The salicylic acid boosts protein production, allowing the trees to regrow what was lost, and the tannins make the trees distasteful to deer, which prevents further snacking.

“On the other hand, if a leaf or a bud snaps off without a roe deer being involved, the tree stimulates neither its production of the salicylic acid signal hormone nor the tannic substances. Instead, it predominantly produces wound hormones,” Bettina Ohse, lead author of the study, explained in a statement.

To test whether this was truly a tailored response to a roe deer threat, the scientists in Leipzig attempted do some outsmarting of their own. They simulated roe deer snacking by clipping the trees, then trickling deer saliva onto the broken branches with a tiny pipette. The fake deer attack sparked the same defensive response as an actual bite from a deer, suggesting to the scientists that trees are able to recognize deer saliva and respond to it. Now, Ohse and her team are performing the experiment on other tree species, to see whether some have better defensive mechanisms than others.

Keep that in mind the next time you consider matching wits with a tree.



ONE OF THE most shocking things about Thursday’s announcement of the Equifax data breach is the sheer scale of the numbers involved. Particularly the Social Security numbers. Yes, there have been plenty of large data breaches before—5 million SSNs revealed in a Kansas Department of Commerce leak in July, 80 million in the notorious 2015 Anthem health insurance breach—but with Equifax’s revelation that 143 million Americans may have had their SSNs stolen (along with other sensitive personal information), security experts are pressing for a fundamental reassessment in how, and why, we identify ourselves.

Considered along with the data stolen from various other breaches, hacks, and leaks, “it’s a safe assumption that everyone’s Social Security number has been compromised and their identity data has been stolen,” says Jeremiah Grossman, the chief of security strategy at the defense and threat monitoring firm SentinelOne. “While it may not be explicitly true, we have to operate under that assumption now.”

SSNs, which have been around since the 1930s, have only one intended purpose: to track US citizens’ earnings and contributions to the Social Security program. (In an uncanny twist, the Social Security Administration itself sometimes uses Equifax services to help verify a person’s identity during the process of setting up a “My Social Security” account, an SSA spokesperson told WIRED on Friday. But the Administration doesn’t share Social Security numbers with Equifax.) Other collection of SSNs is generally legal, but the Social Security Administration has no involvement in wider use of the numbers. “The card was never intended to serve as a personal identification document,” the Administration says on its website. “The universality of SSN ownership has in turn led to the SSN’s adoption by private industry as a unique identifier. Unfortunately, this universality has led to abuse.”

Omnipresence Issues

Problems stem from a number of places. Your Social Security number is supposed to be kept secret, which is an increasing challenge in the digital era. And unlike other, similar secrets (like credit card numbers and passwords), SSNs are extremely difficult to change. The Social Security Administration can issue you a new one in extreme cases of identity theft or abuse. Even if you are able to alter your SSN, though, so many institutions already have your original number on file that criminals can often successfully leverage the stolen information for years. On top of all of that, the new number you receive remains tied to the old one.

“The SSN is used for purposes entirely unrelated to its original purpose. That almost always leads to problems,” says Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which has been advocating for SSN usage reform for more than two decades. “Congress needs to step up and hold hearings. We need laws that limit the collection and use of SSNs. And we need to penalize companies that collect SSNs but can’t protect [them].”

The conventional wisdom about SSN security, which is actually pretty wise, is to limit how often you give your information out. Some organizations that ask for your SSN can still interact with you without it, and sometimes there are ways around providing it. (For example, some utilities like internet providers won’t require your SSN if you pay them a deposit to insure your account.) But too often these measures are inconvenient or impractical, and there are still numerous situations in which it is impossible to avoid submitting your SSN, like on tax forms or background checks. Some regulatory initiatives have had success curtailing SSN distribution, like this week’s Center for Medicare Services announcement that SSNs will be removed from Medicare benefits cards. But that step alone took years to implement.

System Reboot

Experts across numerous privacy and security fields agree that the solution to the over-collection and over-use of SSNs isn’t one particular replacement, but a diverse array of authentications like individual codes (similar to passwords), biometrics, and even physical tokens to create more variation in the ID process. Some also argue that the government likely won’t be the driving force behind the shift. “We have a government that works at a glacial pace in the best of times,” says Brenda Sharton, who chairs the Privacy & Cybersecurity practice at the Goodwin law firm, which has worked on data privacy breach investigations since the early 2000s. “There will reach a point where SSN [exposure] becomes untenable. And it may push us in the direction of having companies require multi-factor authentication. Change may come from enterprise and private companies responding to the threat by requiring additional identifiers.”

Health care companies, for instance, could use a different system from education, which could use a different approach than financial institutions. If credit reporting agencies like Equifax use different identifiers than SSNs, your electric company and your wireless provider could ask for those identifiers to run background checks. And if this new identifier were easy enough to change (unlike SSNs), breaches, leaks, and other unintended exposures would be less consequential.

“The whole SSN as identifier regime needs to be scrapped,” says Eduard Goodman, global privacy officer at the identity theft protection firm CyberScout. “As we see more and more issues with the centralization of data, different schemes for different uses—biometrics for in-person interactions/transactions, some form of advanced encryption or blockchain technologies online. The solutions are already in front of our eyes.”

Having a few identifiers to keep track of would be more complicated for consumers than the current system, but it would have numerous benefits and would still be less to manage than the tangle of usernames and passwords that exist online. “Can I imagine a world where we don’t have this one identifier floating around?” SentinelOne’s Grossman asks. “We have it on the web. We don’t log into Facebook or LinkedIn or Google with our social security number, so I can imagine that world. We actually live it online.”

The personal security situation on the internet as it stands now is certainly fraught, but it would be possible for organizations to implement strong and diverse authentication factors that cut down on the dramatic exposure that currently exists with SSNs. Even simply mailing customers an additional pin number has allowed the Internal Revenue Service to reduce identity theft-related tax fraud. “It’s kind of a watershed moment, but whether and what kind of changes companies implement will depend on their business model and how much of a hit they take,” after data breaches, Goodwin’s Sharton says. “These incidents can be reputationally devastating.”

The impacts of Equifax’s breach could push the company to advocate for new identifiers and authenticators in the credit reporting and financial sectors. Everyone with a Social Security number–also known as the hundreds of millions of people in the US with a Social Security number– is counting on a change.