College Sports Bonanza

Senator Grassley, the Chronicle of Higher Education reports, has turned his attention to the tax status of collegiate athletic programs – wondering “what gives the IRS comfort that they have met the requirements of being a charity.”

The Chronicle furnishes Grassely abundant cause to wonder, reporting that athletics donations now amount to more than a quater of funds received by some universities:

The fresh concerns came in response to a Chronicle article, published online last week, suggesting that contributions to sports programs are eating up an ever-larger share of donations to colleges, and that some athletics programs entice donors with perquisites like free seats on teams’ charter flights.
“When I hear stories about top donors to college athletic programs getting a free seat on the team plane,” Mr. Grassley said in a written statement, “I wonder what the public gets out of that. We need to make sure that taxpayer subsidies for college athletics-program donations benefit the public at large.”

Grassley’s very right to wonder about this. The second Chronicle article is sure cause for alarm, detailing sophisticated athletics fundraising operations operating independently of University development departments. Its unclear what if any benefit these increasingly self-contained operations are providing schools, and good cause to examine their tax status accordingly.

It doesn’t seem that boorish donors and profilgate athletics departments are entirely to blame here, however. Among the $51 million in athletics donations that the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, received last year was two million that the John William Pope Foundation had attempted for years to donate to establish a Western Studies program. Their effort was derailed in much the same fashion as the Alexander Hamilton Center at Hamilton College – by irate faculty and compliant administrators. The foundation had been mulling a total donation of some twelve million for the center. After strong opposition, they abandoned the thought, and gave two million to the football program and a small amount to scholarships instead. Score one for UNC football, zero for UNC academics.

At a time when universities have become increasingly adept at rejecting and misusing donations (see Princeton’s decades-long abuse of the Robertson endowment, the Bass donation at Yale, the Hamilton Center saga, etc. ), support for athletics no doubt seems a very straightforward project, in which donors can expect easy evidence of the use of their funds. It’d certainly be preferable to see such funding routed to academics, but in instances where universities have displayed an enduring disregard and disinterest in donor wishes, it’s not surprising that some might throw up their hands and opt to buy another row of bleachers instead.


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