This paper was prepared for the annual conference of the National Center for Philanthropy and Law, held at the NYU Law School, held October 24-25, 2013. The overall topic was “Tax Issues Affecting Colleges and Universities,” and I was asked to address specifically those issues relating to athletics. This paper considers two specific issues that have in common only that they involve college sports, and are plagued by egregiously bad, (in this case, egregiously generous), tax treatment: the failure of the IRS to regard any part of the revenue from college sports as unrelated business income, and the choice by Congress to allow taxpayers to deduct 80% of contributions that they make to colleges or their “booster clubs,” even when those contributions entitle the donors to special privileges in purchasing tickets to college athletic events.
Most readers are probably familiar with the general rules regarding charitable contributions deductions, but a word about the unrelated business income tax may be helpful. An organization may qualify (or continue to qualify) as a tax-exempt organization, eligible to receive tax-deductible contributions, if its activities are primarily charitable. However, if the organization regularly carries on trade or business activities that are unrelated to its exempt purpose, the income from those activities is subject to federal income taxation at the same rates applicable to for-profit corporations. Although those rates are low for small businesses (those earning less than $75,000 per year), corporate earnings in excess of that amount are taxed at a rate of 34% on up to ten million dollars of income, and 35% beyond that amount. The unrelated business income tax raises very little revenue, but is thought to have an in terrorem effect, discouraging nonprofit organizations from engaging in unrelated business activities. While the unrelated business tax exists primarily because of Congressional concerns about unfair competition with for-profit businesses, a better description of its actual effect is that it discourages nonprofit organizations from pursuit of business activities that do not further any exempt purpose.
Richard Schmalbeck, Ending the Sweetheart Deal between Big-Time College Sports and the Tax System (March 17, 2014)
Library of Congress Subject Headings
Income tax deductions for charitable contributions, College sports, Unrelated business income tax