Are you ready for some football?

Preseason is in full swing already for the NFL and yet all anyone can talk about in the football world is college football. Specifically, the chatter is centered on the University of Miami. Yes, Miami.

Unfortunately for the Hurricanes, the talk focusing on Miami has little to do with the current season or the current players. Instead, it’s about Nevin Shapiro, a 42 year old former University of Miami football booster, who is currently serving a 20 year sentence in federal prison for running a Ponzi scheme (a la Bernie Madoff) worth nearly a billion dollars. That kind of money can buy you a lot of friends. And allegedly, while Shapiro was a University of Miami booster, he bought a lot of friends – up to 72 of them in the way of University of Miami athletes including such names as Jon Beason (now a Carolina Panther), Devin Hester (now a Chicago Bear), Willis McGahee (now a Denver Bronco), Antrel Rolle (now a New York Giant) and Vince Wilfork (now a New England Patriot). Shapiro allegedly bankrolled the lifestyles of these young athletes by giving them cash and jewelry and entertaining them with hookers; he is said to have even purchased a yacht to hold sex parties for the athletes.

The allegations are pretty serious.

The worst part? They’re also not totally unbelievable.

The NCAA has been dodging a number of charges lately about questionable conduct from boosters and supporters. Most famously, after a lengthy and disturbingly quiet investigation, the NCAA found that Reggie Bush (now with the New Orleans Saints) received improper benefits while at USC, leading to sanctions against the university. Last year, Bush also gave up his Heisman Trophy to keep his endorsements to make people like him as a public display of regret.

Shortly thereafter, Ohio State Coach Jim Tressel was forced to resign among allegations that his players received free tattoos and other perks from a local tattoo parlor.

Other football teams have been investigated for similar charges, including Auburn (where players admitted accepting money from boosters) and LSU (where a coach paid a player to transfer). Scouting and recruiting scandals involving cash and other perks have also been reported at Oregon and Georgia Tech.

With that, the University of Miami scandal just seems like the next notch on the NCAA’s dirty bedpost.

It used to be different. College ball used to feel like it was all about the love of the game. College athletics seemed like an opportunity for some kids go to school, play a little ball and get an education.

But now, not so much. Now, many college sports programs – especially football and basketball – feel less about education and more about industry. College sports programs are a money-maker for colleges and increasingly, apparently, the players and coaches.

Don’t believe me? Ask the coaches. In 2009, Connecticut basketball coach Jim Calhoun grew testy when asked by the press about his own $1.6 million salary, which represented more than 13 times the average salary of a tenured professor at the school. Calhoun grumbled:

Quite frankly, we bring in $12 million to the university… We make $12 million a year for this university. Get some facts and come back and see me. … Don’t throw out salaries and other things. Get some facts and come back and see me. We turn over $12 million to the University of Connecticut, which is state-run. Next question.

More numbers? Ohio State University spent over $77 million on its football program alone last year, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Education’s Equity in Athletics. Last year’s BCS winner, Auburn, came in just under, at $71 million. And the dollars pour in just as easily as they are paid out. Football and basketball programs combine for nearly 75% of the $5,002,206,503 in revenue brought in by college athletic programs in public universities.

That’s a lot of money. And it’s federal income tax-free. In fact, because of the tax-exempt designation for college athletics, nearly all of the revenue, including that generated by ticket sales, television deals, bowl games and corporate sponsorships flows tax-free.

It looks like a business. It smells like a business. But we won’t call it a business. We won’t because we’re still buying into the fiction that these programs are somehow an integral part of the academics at these schools. So we call it a charity.

But consider this: while SAT scores now range from 600 to 2400 for college students, the NCAA allows athletes who score 820 (downloads as pdf) to participate in Division II programs so long as they maintain a C average. In some cases, the cost to provide private tutors and academic “assistance” to athletes to maintain standards climbs as high as $100,000 per student athlete. In other instances, programs cheat counsel their athletes in order to make sure that they can still make kickoff (yes, I might be talking about you, UNC-Chapel Hill), not so they can earn a degree. The result? Jim Delany, commissioner of the Big Ten since 1989, told the Philadelphia Inquirer:

We’re definitely in the entertainment business, and I think we have been for a long time.

Entertainment, not education. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. In the abstract, that is. In fact, I happen to love watching college sports. I’ve been a fan of college basketball ever since I can remember; the ACC basketball finals marked the one Sunday you could rest assured that the sermon would be short at church. And since moving to Pennsylvania, I’ve quickly learned that you can’t plan anything on a weekend during football season without conflicting with Penn State football tailgating.

It’s good fun. It’s a game – a game that makes a whole lot of money for a whole lot of people. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I just happen to believe it’s not a tax exempt purpose.

I’m hardly alone. Critics have been pushing Congress to consider this issue for a bit. Over the past few years, the result has been a ridiculously half-hearted inquiry into the tax-exempt status of athletics programs at colleges and universities in light of accusations that they are little more than pro-sport training camps. So far, there’s been nothing but the exchange of a few letters.

In the meantime, college sports programs continue to court donations that aren’t remotely about education or charity.

Maybe it’s time to call it what it is: a business. And if college sports are in business to make money, those programs shouldn’t be tax-exempt.

Maybe we should take it one step further and give college sports an Olympic style makeover. If college sports really aren’t about promoting amateur athletics (a clear tax exempt purpose) and really are a business, let’s also – gasp – relax the rules on paying athletes. Because if it’s really all about the kids, maybe the kids should get a benefit beyond what is, in many instances, a bogus education. Maybe instead they should be rewarded for their contributions to the schools.

Please don’t misunderstand my position here. I really don’t want schools to be farm teams for the big leagues. I want them to be schools. But I am also realistic. The system is clearly in need of a fix. Like it or not, the Nevin Shapiros of the world are here to stay.

College sports was never supposed to be about the money. And maybe somewhere there are still some kids playing because they like to play. And maybe there’s a coach that will just let them do it. But the money is not going away. And money will change the game.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Kelly Phillips Erb is a tax attorney, tax writer, and podcaster.

Write A Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Skip to content