Fair Pay and the Things That Can’t be Taxed

Last week, the NCAA announced it would be modifying its amateurism rules to allow college athletes “opportunities” to “benefit” from use of their names, images, and likenesses (NIL), just days after the Fair Pay to Play Act (SB-206) was officially passed into law. It’s an announcement that’s been regarded as unprecedented by many, but the language surrounding it is concerning. Nowhere does the NCAA’s statement mention money or compensation, and the NCAA made it clear that it still won’t consider college athletes university employees.

Even so, the internet exploded, and the digital conversation surrounding the Fair Pay to Play Act has been unfolding for months over the course of its passing. Prominent sports figures have been supporting SB-206 for months, and many believe the NCAA’s reaction is a direct result of the bill officially passing into law. Even politicians who have never expressed an interest in college sports have been following the ordeal, from Mitt Romney to Elizabeth Warren, to Richard Burr, who tweeted:

“If college athletes are going to make money off their likenesses while in school, their scholarships should be treated like income. I’ll be introducing legislation that subjects scholarships given to athletes who choose to ‘cash in’ to income taxes.”

There’s a lot wrong with this tweet, but that’s another article for another day. Still, Burr highlights why SB-206 has generated the kind of conversation it has: athletic revenue is taxable. NCAA policy usually doesn’t interest people outside of college sports, and as someone who researches it, I can tell you that I routinely wear out my college sports fan friends by diving 400 pages deep into the Division 1 Manual in the middle of a football game. That’s more than understandable. I’d like to enjoy the game too, and I have to go through extensive mental gymnastics to do it.

That being said, it’s undeniable that the Fair Pay to Play Act and the NCAA’s reactions have been headline-grabbers, even to those who have never expressed an interest in college sports. Athletic amateurism has become the low-hanging fruit for policy-makers and bi-partisan political talk: nearly everyone agrees that athletes deserve to profit from their NIL. But that’s only a fraction of the issues that affect college athletes.

Over the course of the SB-206 storyline, two independent investigations have taken place surrounding coach abuse of softball players at the University of Nebraska and Rutgers University, and more ugly information has surfaced regarding former Ohio State team doctor Richard Strauss, who allegedly assaulted over 300 of his student-athlete patients over the tenure of his decades-long career there. Why have only a handful of stories been written about the systemic abuse of college athletes?

I’ll be blunt: revenue garnered by college athletes is taxable income, and that’s why it demands attention. Athletic safety can’t be taxed, so it gets put on the back burner while everyone else debates amateurism. In a way, Richard Burr is correct about cashing in, but it’s not the athletes who are getting payouts. I would argue that politicians, like Burr, who express a desire to “cash in” on college athletes need to care about their humanity just as much, even if that can’t be taxed.


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