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A new chapter was added to the ongoing dispute as to whether student athletes should be compensated for (i) the part they play in helping their respective schools generate millions of dollars in revenue from ticket sales and the use of their individual player likenesses, and (ii) the predominant amount of time that is spent as an athlete as opposed to a student.  It is a deeper issue than simply framing it as “pay for play”, but that discussion is one for another day …

What is important for our purposes is that the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB” or the “Board”) recently ruled Northwestern University’s scholarship football players (differentiated from walk-on players) are “employees” under the National Labor Relations Act (the “Act”), and as such, have the right to unionize for collective bargaining purposes.

The Board’s ruling will be appealed, so the practical application of this unionization right and the resulting sub-issues from the decision will be delayed as of this writing.  However, there are theoretical tax matters that will play a part in the debate, and that could emerge if student-athletes are in-fact deemed “employees”.  Furthermore, the reasoning that the NLRB used to reach its conclusion that student-athletes are “employees” may also be the basis for which student-athletes would be taxed.

Without going into extensive detail, the NLRB determined that the Northwestern football players receive the substantial economic benefit of a scholarship in exchange for performing football-related services, under what amounts to be a contract-for-hire.  Additionally, the Board made note of the extensive amount of control that the football coaching staff and University have over the players, and that if team rules are broken, scholarships can be revoked:

  • NCAA rules prohibit players from receiving additional compensation or otherwise profit from their athletic ability and/or reputation, so scholarship players are dependent on their scholarships to pay for basic necessitates, including food and shelter;
  • Players devote 40-60 hours per week for football, depending on whether it is in-season versus the off-season, despite the NCAA’s prescribed limitation of 20 hours per week once the academic  year begins;
  • Coaches control living arrangements, outside employment, the ability to drive personal vehicles, travel arrangements off-campus, social media, use of alcohol or drugs, and gambling;
  • Players also are sometimes unable to take courses in certain academic quarters because they conflict with scheduled team practices.

At this point it is not entirely clear what student-athletes would be taxed on because if the decision is ultimately affirmed, there could be conflicting definitions and concepts in the tax code with respect to “gross income”, “compensation for services” and “qualified scholarships.”

For income tax purposes, “gross income” means all income from whatever source it is derived, and this includes compensation for services.  Until now student-athletes have not been considered employees, which is essentially why their scholarship (or parts of) have not previously been taxed.  But the NLRB went to great lengths to detail how the Northwestern football players currently receive compensation for playing football (the reason it saw fit to classify them as employees).  On that same basis, the IRS would likely take the position that the granted scholarships are compensation for services, and are thus taxable income to the student-athletes.  Whether the current statutory language would have to be amended or exclusions would have to be created to properly allow for this taxation is a secondary issue.

Yet there are other benefits the Northwestern football players have cited which they feel would outweigh the negative impact of taxes they might incur.  If the decision is upheld, players might be able to qualify for workers’ compensation benefits as a result of injuries suffered on the field.  Moreover, instead of coaches having unilateral control over the schedules and rules players must abide by at the risk of losing scholarships, the union the players could form would bargain with the university over “working conditions”.  This would be similar to the way in which the NFL and MLB players’ unions bargain for benefits of their respective players.

However, rights that are bargained for by this theoretical union could lead to further questions for the university.  For example, if players successfully bargained for health benefits, Title IX (which demands equal treatment of male and female athletes) might require equivalent benefits to all of the other athletic programs on campus.  Conversely, bargained-for benefits such as safer football helmets or equipment would not necessitate comparable action on the part of the school.

The NLRB ruling in the Northwestern case is restricted to private universities, meaning efforts by student-athletes of state schools would be governed by each state’s laws on unions of public employees.  However, this decision is an initial step in what will be a lengthy process that ultimately could re-shape the National Collegiate Athletics Association (“NCAA”) … and tax issues will most certainly have a substantial impact along the way.

CJ Stroh, Esq.

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