Congress Should Tackle NFL's Tax-Exempt Status

PORTLAND, Ore. ( TheStreet) -- We can only assume that, at some point in the not-so-distant future, Congress will restart the government it shut down and get back to something resembling work.

When that happens, Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma is going to continue his lonely quest to make sports leagues with revenues in excess of $10 million pay taxes. That includes the National Hockey League, Professional Golfers Association, Association of Tennis Professionals Tour, Women's Tennis Association Tour, U.S. Tennis Association, National Hot Rod Association and the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association - all of which exist as tax-exempt organizations under Section 501(c) of the Internal Revenue Code.

However, it's the organization written right into that section's language that would be the big catch of Coburn's revenue fishing trip: "501(c)(6) provides for exemption of business leagues, chambers of commerce, real estate boards, boards of trade, and professional football leagues (whether or not administering a pension fund for football players), which are not organized for profit and no part of the net earnings of which inures to the benefit of any private shareholder or individual."

The football league in question is the National Football League and its reported $9.5 billion in revenue from 2012. That exemption makes it possible to take a look at comissioner Roger Goodell's $30 million salary, but also makes it very clear just how difficult it is to keep tabs on the cash coming into the league and how it is being disbursed to teams.

That fact isn't lost on Lynda Wooldard, a fan from New Orleans who put together a petition asking Congress to strip the NFL of its tax-exempt status. More than 210,000 people have signed on.

However, Forbes columnist Peter Reilly argues that the NFL's non-profit tax exemption only allows it to operate as a revenue clearhinghouse for its 32 teams and nothing more. He even argues that what keeps the NFL separate from for-profits including Major League Baseball (which gave up its tax-exempt status in 2007) and the National Basketball Association is its "quasi-religious status," tacitly suggesting that it may be worthy of a religious exemption.

Coburn, naturally, finds this ludicrous.

"Tax earmarks are essentially tax increases for everyone who doesn't receive the benefit," he says in a statement. "In this case, working Americans are paying artificially high rates in order to subsidize special breaks for sports leagues. This is hardly fair."

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