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Archive for Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Tax break for college athletics hard to justify

October 24, 2006

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— Before Miami police quelled the recent riot involving more than 100 University of Miami and Florida International University football players in the Orange Bowl, fighting erupted among fans in the stands. In two masterpieces of misdirected anxiety, the commissioner of Miami's Atlantic Coast Conference said the rioting "has no place in college football" and the commissioner of FIU's Sun Belt Conference said "there is no place in higher education for the type of conduct exhibited."

But the question really raised by the barbaric behavior, and by nonviolent but nonetheless lurid behavior by some universities, is: What is the place of high-stakes football in higher education?

Twelve days before the Orange Bowl brawl, Republican Rep. Bill Thomas wrote, as chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, an eight-page letter to the president of the National Collegiate Athletic Assn., asking awkward questions. Thomas wonders how, or whether, big-time college sports programs, which generate billions of tax-exempt dollars - CBS pays the NCAA an annual average of $545 million mainly for rights to televise the March Madness basketball tournament - further the purposes for which educational institutions are granted tax-exempt status. Other questions include:

How does the NCAA fulfill its proclaimed purpose of maintaining "the athlete as an integral part of the student body"? Only 55 percent of football players and 38 percent of basketball players at Division I-A schools graduate. The New York Times has reported that at Auburn, a perennial football power, many athletes have received "high grades from the same professor for sociology and criminology courses that required no attendance and little work." Eighteen members of the undefeated 2004 team took a combined 97 hours of those courses while at Auburn. Who believes such behavior is confined to Auburn?

In recent decades, the NCAA has increased the number of games that football and men's basketball teams are allowed to play. Thomas wonders how these changes help athletes improve their academic performances? Perhaps these changes have pecuniary purposes?

The NCAA aims to "retain a clear line of demarcation between intercollegiate athletics and professional sports." But aside from not compensating the athletes in a way commensurate with the money they generate for the universities, how is that line clear?

Some say the tax-exempt status of college sports is justified by the fact - and it is a fact - that successful sports teams often trigger increased applications for admission, and largess from alumni and legislatures. But, Thomas notes, "federal taxpayers have no interest in increasing applicant pools at one school opposed to another." Furthermore, athletic success that causes a surge of giving to universities may decrease giving to worthy charities.

Also, tax exemption is financing an escalation of coaches' salaries. More than 35 college football coaches are paid more than $1 million annually. The University of Colorado athletic department has borrowed $8 million, much of which will be used to buy out the contract of a fired football coach. Noting that several universities pay their men's basketball coaches four to five times more than their women's basketball coaches, Thomas wonders: "What additional educational benefit do men's basketball coaches provide beyond that which is provided by women's basketball coaches?" If the disparity has a commercial rather than an educational rationale, why should the commerce be tax-free?

Tax exemption also is a federal subsidy for ever-more lavish facilities: Oklahoma State University, which is receiving $165 million from T. Boone Pickens to improve its athletic facilities, was already planning a $102 million upgrade of its football stadium. OSU charges fans a $2,500 "annual donation" just to become eligible to buy tickets for the best seats.

The University of Michigan, which has had 198 consecutive sellouts at its stadium that now seats 107,501, is spending $226 million to add 3,200 luxury seats and 83 suites. The University of Texas at Austin is spending $150 million to add 10,000 seats to its current 85,123 capacity. These may be sound commercial decisions, but why should this commerce be tax-exempt?

Thomas wants to know how many NCAA members "generate a net profit on the operations of their athletic departments (excluding university subsidies such as student fees or general school funds and services)? Of the institutions that generate a net profit, how many use the profit for purposes unrelated to the athletic department?"

Thomas is retiring, but if Democrats capture control of the House, the new chairman of Ways and Means, Charles Rangel, may hold hearings into the NCAA's tax-free lifestyle. Such hearings will be embarrassing, if people who operate football and basketball factories are capable of embarrassment.

- George Will is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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