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Cheaper Than a Rain Forest

Nicholas Johnson

Iowa City Press-Citizen

February 3, 2007

[Note: This material is copyright by the Press-Citizen, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial commentary and educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the Iowa City Press-Citizen.]

In addition to the fact that Iowa’s Senator Chuck Grassley is no longer chair of the Senate Finance Committee, I don’t think his suggestion there shouldn’t be tax deductions for “contributions” to intercollegiate football programs stands a snowball’s chance in an Iowa rainforest.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think about it.

Legal discussions pose two issues: What is the law? What should it be? Grassley acknowledges perhaps the law should be changed. But, as written, he questions whether it provides deductions for contributions to college football.

Tax deductions are for charitable contributions to eligible organizations. The IRS says “charitable” means things like “relief of the poor; advancement of religion, education or science; defending human and civil rights.”

Eligible organizations under Section 501(c)(3) are those, for example, “operated exclusively for religious, charitable, scientific, literary, or educational purposes.”

Doesn’t sound much like football.

College football has become a business. Big business. With corporate CEO-level salaries for coaches. NFL scouts watching these “farm clubs” and hiring the best players. Student seating giving way to $100,000 skyboxes in $100 million-plus stadiums. TV revenues over $1 billion. Coaches’ product endorsements. Advertising on scoreboards. And tie-in agreements with gambling casinos and lotteries.

It doesn’t sound exactly like a program designed for “relief of the poor.” Nor, suggests our Senator, does it have much to do with scholarships for those among them seeking a college education, or building classrooms, or any other “educational purposes.”

Competitive sports have been around for thousands of years. They’re not going away soon. Nor should they. The question is whether housing them in our high schools and colleges is best for either academics or athletics.

The rest of the world also loves sports. They go crazy over soccer – the only sport for which there is truly a “world championship.” But they’re cheering for community teams.

Sure, their schools have physical education classes and intramural sports – and given our kids obesity we could do with more of both in our schools. But the primary focus of their secondary schools and universities is on academics, not athletics.

Sports Illustrated’s Frank DeFord thinks we should admit football isn’t academic and put it in a university’s “Department of Entertainment.” I have an even better idea, a kind of win-win.

Keep “the Iowa Hawkeyes.”  Keep Kinick Stadium. Keep the tailgating and drunken crowds. But make the football program its own, separate for-profit corporation. It keeps the football revenue, but pays to lease Kinnick. The corporation could pay the coach whatever it wanted. It might even pay the players a little fairer share of those revenues, too.

Meanwhile, the University could become an academic institution.

How could for-profit Hawk football give contributors tax deductions? That’s what special interest lobbyists are for: making the tax code resemble Swiss cheese. The Olympics are a 501(c)(3). Why not the Hawkeyes?

Propose the idea to Senator Chuck “Earmarks” Grassley. He’s not opposed to football; he just doesn’t think it’s “education.”
Nicholas Johnson teaches at the UI College of Law and maintains and