As the Orlando Magic face off against the Los Angeles Lakers for the 2009 NBA championship, casual hoops fans may wonder where their rooting interests should lie. If the players or teams don’t excite you, I humbly suggest that you choose your team based not on players, colors or coaches but on owners. Why? Because the victorious owner, whether Lakers boss Jerry Buss or Magic helmsman Richard DeVos, stands to make a fortune by winning, as well as elevate his personal profile. If you do choose to root for a team based on its owners, there is absolutely no contest for progressives: break out the lavender and gold and pray for a Lakers victory. It’s not that Buss is any great shakes; it’s the fact that DeVos operates the Magic like the sporting arm of a radical right- wing empire whose reach extends from makeup to militias.
As co-founder of Amway, the 83-year-old DeVos has amassed a fortune of more than $4.4 billion. Through Amway, he popularized the concept of what is known as network marketing, where salespeople attempt to lure their friends and neighbors into buying products. Sixty percent of what Amway salespeople traffic are health and beauty products. The rest of their merchandise is a veritable pu pu platter of homecare products, jewelry, electronics and even insurance. To put it mildly, DeVos doesn’t do his political business off company time. Amway has been investigated for violating campaign finance laws by seamlessly shifting from network marketing to network politicking. DeVos has used not only his company but his own epic fortune at the service of his politics. He could be described as the architect, underwriter and top chef of every religious-right cause on Pat Robertson’s buffet table. The former finance chair of the Republican National Committee, DeVos is far more than just a loyal party man. For more than four decades he has been the funder in chief of the right-wing fringe of the Christian fundamentalist movement. Before the 1994 “Republican Revolution” made Newt Gingrich a household name, Amway contributed what the Washington Post called “a record sum in recent American politics,” $2.5 million. In the 2004 election cycle Amway and the DeVos family helped donate more than $4 million to campaigns pumping propaganda for Bush and company, with around $2 million coming out of Devos’s own pocket.
During the Bush years DeVos received a decent return on these investments, with tax cuts that saved him millions and tax exemptions for people who sold Amway out of their homes. He then used these extra gains to further empower his nonprofit, the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation, to direct millions to groups that support radical reparative gay therapy, antievolution politics and other “traditional” family values. The organizations they support include Focus on the Family, the Foundation for Traditional Values, the Federalist Society, the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute and the Media Research Center, among many others. They also supply grants to the Free Congress Foundation, which claims that its main focus is on the “Culture War.” It hopes to “return [America] to the culture that made it great, our traditional, Judeo-Christian, Western culture.”
DeVos is also a senior member of an organization called the Council for National Policy. Imagine the most shadowy right-wing organization, and CNP is the sort of group that rests in its shadows and inspires fevered talk of “vast right-wing conspiracies.” The CNP makes members of the Masons look like paparazzi-hungry starlets. Its membership includes the elite of the John Birch Society. Richard DeVos served on both the executive committee and the board of governors for the CNP.
Another leading member of the CNP was fellow Michigan-based billionaire Edgar Prince. In what Nation contributor Jeremy Scahill has described as a royal coupling in the tradition of feudal Europe, Prince’s daughter Betsy married Richard’s son Dick Jr. Scahill also writes, “[The DeVos family was] one of the greatest bankrollers of far-right causes in U.S. history, and with their money they propelled extremist Christian politicians and activists to positions of prominence.”
Betsy Prince’s brother, and Edgar’s son, Erik Prince, would become first a Navy SEAL and later founder and CEO of the infamous Blackwater corporation. Blackwater is the company of private mercenaries hired to help occupy Iraq, Afghanistan and even post-Katrina New Orleans. Famous for rolling through Baghdad in black SUVs, rock music blaring and making far more money than US soldiers, they are an outsourced army, unaccountable to the government and inciting resentment and anti-Americanism wherever they are stationed. Since 2000, Blackwater has received nearly $1.25 billion in federal contracts, of which $144 million came in small-business set-aside contracts. This isn’t a vast right-wing conspiracy: it has been an openly incestuous and highly beneficial coupling between the DeVos/Prince clan and the Republican Party.
None of this would matter to sports fans if the DeVos family kept its politics out of the Orlando Magic or if it didn’t rely on public funds for the team. Neither is the case. At Amway Arena, the DeVos hold Faith & Family Nights, multiple home-school nights and other events replete with Christian rock and player testimonials.
DeVos’s use of the team for his own profile and profit has spurred protests in Orlando. To get people to protest in Orlando, you have to know you’re doing something wrong. Outside Amway Arena, there have been demonstrations to raise awareness among fans of DeVos’s contribution of $100,000 to Florida4Marriage, a group that supports Amendment 2, which would add Florida’s existing ban on gay marriage to the state Constitution. Protesters believe the amendment could halt all domestic-partnership benefits for even straight unmarried couples. “He’s the biggest contributor to the amendment from Orlando,” protest organizer Jennifer Foster told the Orlando Sentinel. “And he’s getting $1 billion in taxpayers’ money to build the arena. That sends a bad message.”
It’s more than a bad message. The DeVos model is organized theft of public funds that then turns arenas into slush funds for radical right politics. As Foster mentioned, ground has now been broken for a $1.1 billion Orlando mega-entertainment complex, the center of which would be a $480 million new arena. DeVos and his people have publicly boasted about how much they are donating to the project. But as Neil deMause, co-author of Field of Schemes wrote, “The actual Magic contribution toward the $480 million price tag, then, is probably somewhere around $70 million.”
It’s a frighteningly effective political money-laundering scheme: our tax dollars are being funneled through a stadium and into the pockets of the DeVos family, where they are then spit out into think tanks, activist organizations and political efforts that most Americans would find noxious. For these reasons, I will do my political duty and root for the Lakers to win it all. We should all want to kick back, enjoy this series and keep politics and sports separate. Unfortunately, Dick DeVos won’t let us.