It’s always easy to show compassion when you’re using other people’s money. New Jersey governor Phil Murphy is reminding us of that lesson, as a minor scandal erupts in the Garden State over his treatment of the players on a women’s professional soccer team that he owns. Press reports describe life on Murphy’s team, SkyBlue FC, as “sad and bleak,” even for stars like former world player of the year and two-time Olympic gold medalist Carli Lloyd. The news has caused a stir for the governor, who became the latest progressive standard-bearer to ride to political victory on promises to tax the rich and increase regulations on businesses in order to better the lot of workers and the poor.
But Murphy the business owner now looks even worse than Murphy the governor promising to spend other people’s money. An investigative story published in The Equalizer, a soccer website, described underpaid players housed in homes with plastic bags for windows and holes in the walls. One former coach described the living conditions as “horrific.” Because the team has no laundry service, players frequently practice in dirty gear. The training facility is known as “the Jungle” because it lacks basic amenities like locker rooms, running water, or bathrooms; players use porta potties instead. They have trouble paying their medical bills, and they haven’t been reimbursed for travel costs. Much of this is apparently nothing new. The team’s plight drew reporters’ attention after a former player who now plays for another team returned for a game and afterward told the press about the conditions for SkyBlue. Players have been complaining to management about conditions for years.
Though he’s listed as the team’s principal owner, Murphy claims that he hasn’t been involved in day-to-day operations. He says that he invested in the team—which plays in the National Women’s Soccer League, an outfit struggling to gain an audience and advertisers—not because he wanted to make a buck but to send an inspirational message to his daughter that women deserve their own professional league. He’s lost about $5 million on the team in the last three years, according to reports. Even so, Murphy, a wealthy former Goldman Sachs executive who self-financed his gubernatorial campaign— and released tax records during the campaign showing that he earned nearly $5 million in 2016 from investments alone—hasn’t exactly turned out to be a model owner. Though the women weren’t looking to be paid like men’s superstar Lionel Messi, they did expect locker rooms and showers. Now, in the wake of the scandal, Murphy has issued a statement saying that he’s ordering that the players be treated like professionals.
If Murphy really isn’t involved in operating the team, then he ought to consult those who are. He might learn something about doing business in New Jersey. In trying to justify some of their struggles, team officials told the press that part of the problem was the high cost of living. One official said that steep housing costs were a particular challenge in the Garden State. Yet Murphy has pointedly refused to consider ways that government might help make things more affordable in Jersey; instead, he’s used the state’s high costs to justify even higher taxes. “Whether you were born here or moved here later in life, you knew New Jersey was never an inexpensive place,” Murphy said earlier this year, when he dismissed the challenges facing business owners in the state. People come to New Jersey, he argued, for opportunity, and to make Jersey a “good value” now requires more government. “Everything in this budget is built around restoring New Jersey as the ‘good value for money’ state we had been for decades,” Murphy said, announcing hundreds of millions in new taxes.
The state’s businesses clearly disagree. In a recent poll, they ranked the state uncompetitive on a range of issues, especially on taxes and government spending. That’s one reason why only 14 percent of New Jersey’s businesses said that they would consider opening a new location in-state. Similarly, only 40 percent of business owners and executives said that they expected to remain in the Garden State after they retired.
Some political commentators are now concerned that the management mess at SkyBlue raises questions about political neophyte Murphy’s ability to oversee state government. The more troubling message in the SkyBlue affair, though, is that Murphy showed a complete lack of interest in, and sympathy with, the struggles of a new business and its employees—even when it was his own business—until he was embarrassed by press reports. Murphy often touts his compassion for New Jersey’s workers, but the SkyBlue affair makes that boast seem more like an abstraction than a reality.
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