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Tax favors for gridiron green

Here in Austin, all the talk is not on tonight's gubernatorial debate (everyone knows Kinky will get in the best sound bites, if not the best political licks). No, everyone is talking about tomorrow's UT-OU football game.

Red_river_rivalry_logo_2 The annual meeting of the Longhorns and Sooners in Dallas' Cotton Bowl, ostensibly neutral territory essentially halfway between Norman and Austin, is variously referred to as the Red River Rivalry, Red River Rumble, Red River Showdown or the Red River Shootout (yeah, even we Texans hang onto those wild west clichés when they suit our purposes).

When I was much younger, despite being a native Texan, I yelled for Oklahoma. Maybe it was just to be contrary. Or maybe it was as simple (and girly) as preferring the color red over orange. Anyway, OU seemed to field plenty of players who hailed from the Lone Star State, so I didn't feel that disloyal.

Then I headed off to college at Texas Tech, in those days a Southwest Conference rival of UT. All of us in Lubbock got pretty tired pretty quickly of hearing that school down in Austin referred to as "THE" University of Texas.

Hey! Look westward, folks! We've got a school here in the Panhandle! And there are a couple major higher-ed institutions in Houston and Dallas, not to mention plenty of smaller but fine facilities in just about every part of the state.

Yeah, bragging is second nature to Texans, but when we're pitted against each other, we have the makings of a good domestic dispute. And that arrogant emphasis on "the" was a fightin' word!

So in my college days, OU became my second alma mater and one that provided more wins against UT than, unfortunately, the Red Raiders were able to pull off during my eight semesters at Tech.

When the hubby and I moved out of state, my OU support waned a bit, even though by then my folks had moved to Sooner country. As a displaced Texan, I felt I had to at least give lip service to supporting what was presented as the representation of my birthplace. But if OU won, it didn't really bother me. Regardless of which team came out on top, the result was sort of a win-win while we were in Maryland and Florida.

Now that we're living in Austin, however, I'm facing the dilemma again. I love this city, but I've got to admit that the excessive UT rah-rah does grate a bit. And the school's done quite well for itself athletically in the last few years, what with 2005 national championships in both football and baseball, so it really wouldn't hurt them to experience some of the on-the-field losses that the rest of us regularly encounter.

I guess I'll just wait until the kickoff and go with my gut.

Turning a taxing eye on college games: The UT-OU game will get lots of viewers who went to neither school. It's a gridiron tradition, both schools are now in the Big 12, they have competitive records so far (the Longhorns are 4-1; Sooners come in 3-1).

And oh yeah, there's that post-season trophy, the Heisman, which OU running back Adrian Peterson is, right now, a top candidate to claim.

Even some federal lawmakers will be watching closely, but not necessarily because they went to either school. Rather, they're interested in the game's financial payoff.

Cotton_bowl_full_of_fans_3 Big sporting events, particularly football and basketball games, mean big money for colleges and their conferences. And that bothers some legislators, especially since the umbrella organization of college sports, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, is a tax-exempt entity.

Rep. Bill Thomas, Republican Congressman from California and chair of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, has a real issue with the situation. He's written the NCAA, asking it to justify its tax-exempt status. Read the full letter here.

"From the standpoint of a federal taxpayer, why should the federal government subsidize the athletic activities of educational institutions when that subsidy is being used to help pay for escalating coaches' salaries, costly chartered travel and state-of-the-art athletic facilities?" asked Thomas, according to an Associated Press report.

The NCAA's initial response, again via the AP article: The organization disagrees with charges that athletics is not part of higher education or that not-for-profit status should be linked with the amount of revenue an organization generates. "We educate student athletes," said NCAA spokesman Erik Christianson. "They are students first."

College athlete daze ... I mean, days: Uh, yeah. I remember those "student athletes" from my college days. They get special tutoring, major in the proverbial basket-weaving (sometimes known in official curricula listings as "communications") and have an invisible cloak that prevents them from being seen in classrooms.

Don't believe me about college athletes' lack of academic commitment? Check out this story on the abysmal graduation rates of Big 12 players. (Here come those mixed feelings again: UT had the worst numbers among football programs ranked in the Top 25.)

Overall, the NCAA was touting a 1 percent (ONE -- uno, less-than-two -- percent?!?) increase in graduation rates from the year before, and it takes the players six years to do so! Full spin report here.

I'm not impressed.

Not to be too cynical, but college sports for the most part, especially major university football and basketball programs, are very thinly veiled farm teams for the pro leagues. The NCAA, NFL and NBA should just admit that.

Let the major leagues finance the players' "educations" via "scholarships" funded by the pro teams that eventually will officially hire many of the top college players and free up those scholarships for other more classroom-oriented students.

Cynical aside: Would Thomas have written such a letter if his 22nd Congressional district were home to a major university that regularly challenged for national collegiate athletic championships? Discuss and decide for yourself.

More questionable tax statuses: Thomas' letter is just the latest inquiry by Capitol Hill into the tax-exempt status claims of various groups.

In this election year, churches and charities, particularly those apparently involved in political efforts, have been getting the IRS once over. And back during the spring's basketball Final Four, the same NCAA money and tax status questions were asked.

Now, given all the attention to the huge Tax Gap (read about the Treasury Department's latest plan to collect the "missing" money here, and my previous comments on the topic here), the issue of who should, or rather, shouldn't, get tax benefits is gaining momentum. Sports Law Blog thinks the NCAA is in no imminent danger, but you never know with Congress. Stay tuned.

And enjoy all of this weekend's ball games.


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