Thursday, July 22, 2021
Thought I'd provide some quick reflections on the NCAA v. Alston a SCOTUS case handed down a month ago on June 21.
First a personal reflection. When I joined the IRS in the mid 2000s, I was told only somewhat in jest: there are two iron clad rules in exempt organizations -- preachers and college athletics ("hook em horns") always win. This latest case suggests that this iron clad rule may be beginning to subside in part at least.
Justice Gorsuch, writing for a unanimous Court affirmed the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in finding that the NCAA rules restricting educational benefits offered by colleges and universities to student athletes violated the Sherman Antitrust Act.
The Court affirmed the 9th Circuit that found that the NCAA limits on educational compensation violated the Antitrust Act only insofar as they involved educational benefits rather than other forms of compensation.
Probably the most significant aspect of the case that may have impact on other places for the NCAA and college athletics is that SCOTUS rejected the idea that the NCAA ought be treated differently because it deals with amateurs and is engaged in education rather than commercial activity.
This case does not change anything for how to think about universities and college athletics qualifying as charitable organizations under section 501(c)(3). John Colombo wrote an article The NCAA, Tax Exemption and College Athletics that is still relevant to this question today.
First, I would not expect this decision to effect college athletics entities like the NCAA or the university athletic activities to be found to be not charitable. This is because Congress amended the Code to provide that promoting amateur athletics is a purpose that meets the charitable requirement of section 501(c)(3). Perhaps, if universities start paying athletes and their amateurism is called into question, this would become an issue, but as of now, I do not see it threatening college athletics on the tax exemption angle.
Secondly, this ruling does not immediately impact the unrelated business income tax and college athletics either. The IRS and Courts have generally been favorable to college athletics. Just as Colombo concluded in his article some years ago, I think it still unlikely for that favorability to end because of the Alston holding.
However, as in the first matter, should the veneer of amateur begin to fall, and college athletics begin to compensate athletes, then the question of unrelated business income tax could become a real issue again for college athletics. The most dangerous possibility for college athletics and its expected tax treatment at least was raised in a concurrence by Justice Kavanaugh who suggested he would find the limitations on all forms of compensation to violate the Antitrust Act.