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Our Opinion: Richard Burr’s student-athlete tax

Our Opinion: Richard Burr’s student-athlete tax

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North Carolina’s Sen. Richard Burr hasn’t always played it safe as a legislator.

He was one of the few Republicans in the Senate who had the courage to vote against former President Trump during his second impeachment trial earlier this year, though it certainly cost him good will with his colleagues. (The N.C. GOP censured Burr for his vote.)

Now Burr is taking another chance and inviting the ire of many — Democrats and Republicans — as well as both sports fans and those who couldn’t care less about sportsball — by introducing legislation last week that would require college student-athletes to pay taxes on their scholarships if they make more than $20,000 in outside endorsements — this, in response to the NCAA’s decision to allow student-athletes to earn money by licensing their names, images or likenesses (NIL).

“The premise of this bill is simple,” Burr said. “If a student chooses to monetize their name, image and likeness based on their connection to their school — in some cases earning them $1 million or more a year — their scholarship should be subject to federal income taxation.”

Burr said that his bill is needed “to protect the integrity of amateur athletics at colleges and universities across the nation.”

We wonder why it is, though, that he thinks the scholarships should be subject to taxes when their actual NIL earnings already are taxed. The next questions are inevitable: Should other students’ scholarships be subject to taxation? Should all?

We also struggle to see a natural connection between taxation and college athletic integrity, but perhaps it’s there. Burr, who played defensive back for Wake Forest football in the 1970s and lettered for the Demon Deacons in 1974 and 1975, definitely has more experience in the field.

Yet even for the few student-athletes whose endorsements could lead to quite a haul — some have signed five- or six-figure contracts, and a few have reached as much as $1 million annually — taxing their scholarships strikes us as unnecessary and unfair for several reasons.

While student-athletes come from a variety of backgrounds, athletic scholarships are often the lifeline that allow lower-income students to acquire a higher education. These scholarships don’t turn them into moguls; money can still be tight and an NIL contract at least can make life more pleasant for them — and their families.

Taxing them for lifting themselves by their own Nikes doesn’t seem … sporting.

There also seem to be quite a few members of society who have been freed from the burden of taxation while regularly earning quite a bit more than the most photogenic college football star — some of whom are quite talented at hiding their earnings, as we’re beginning to learn through the release of the Pandora Papers.

Perhaps Burr should join his Democratic colleagues in asking them to pay their fair share.

There’s also something about the way Burr phrases this — “If a student chooses to monetize their name, image and likeness based on their connection to their school” — that sounds almost punitive, as if he thinks they should be content to play their sport and go to class.

This is not the first time that Burr has grumbled about taxing athletes. In 2019 he tweeted: “If college athletes are going to make money off their likenesses while in school, their scholarships should be treated like income.”

Many disagreed, most notably Greensboro’s Mark Walker, a fellow Republican who was serving in the House at the time.

“If scholarships are income, that makes them employees, not student-athletes,” Walker tweeted in a retort to Burr. “This isn’t about income. It’s about basic rights that every other American has to their own name.”

Before the changes in NIL compensation, student-athletes were doubtlessly shortchanged, and most still are. Yes, their scholarships are valuable, and successful college athletic careers can be parlayed into professional careers.

But college athletics generates billions in revenue. Even with compensation for NILs, the lion’s share of the financial benefits will go to their schools.

Winning the right to be compensated for their NIL, if not their work, was an accomplishment — but is still somewhat chintzy. Most of their deals aren’t likely to be that lucrative. Do they really need to be taxed?

“Given the political makeup in both his chamber and the U.S. House, it’s unlikely this measure will go anywhere without substantial support from Democrats across the aisle,” Todd McFall, a sports economist at Wake Forest University, told the Winston-Salem Journal. But Burr’s isn’t the only proposal for dealing with NILs. Other proposals will attempt to codify and limit student-athletes’ earnings even more.

If this is the closing act of Burr’s congressional career — he’s not running for reelection — he could do better.


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