Politics & Government

Don’t mess with college football: Southern senator fights for tax break for donors

Clemson marching band members cheer for the team during the second half of an NCAA college football game against South Carolina on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2017, in Columbia, S.C.
Clemson marching band members cheer for the team during the second half of an NCAA college football game against South Carolina on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2017, in Columbia, S.C. AP

Sen. Lindsey Graham represents a state with the defending national champions in college football and women’s college basketball.

Clemson’s football team is No. 1 again as it chases a second consecutive title, and the University of South Carolina — in addition to its powerful women’s basketball program — boasts one of the most passionate football fan bases in the country.

“You mess with college football, you’re going to get creamed,” said Graham, a South Carolina Republican.

The tax bills making their way through Congress mess with college football. The Senate bill, which is expected to get a Senate vote sometime late Thursday night or early Friday morning, removes a tax deduction for college athletic department donors who pay for the right to purchase season tickets.

In order to purchase season tickets at many schools, fans must first make a donation to the athletic department’s booster group. Those donations are a large source of income for athletic departments because the money is passed back to the departments from the booster club. Currently 80 percent of those contributions are tax deductible.

Graham wants to save that deduction. He has an amendment to the Senate bill to restore the deduction.

“Second to the GI Bill, the most scholarships given in the country come from athletic programs. The money raised by athletic programs, there’s thousands, tens of thousands of scholarships that are given by the universities because of successful athletic programs,” Graham said. “I think that selling seats is a business enterprise that I’m willing to give a deduction for. I think it really helps people when it comes to college scholarships.”

Donations to college athletic departments and related booster clubs totaled $1.2 billion in 2015, eclipsing the $1 billion mark for the fourth time in five years, according to the Council for Aid to Education.

The deduction is one of many eliminated by House and Senate Republicans to pay for lowering the tax rates for corporations and individuals.

“I went to Wake Forest. We’ve got a great field house out there,” said Rep. George Holding, a Republican from North Carolina who helped write the bill as a member of the House Ways and Means Committee. “Rams Club, the Wolfpack Club, all these things are a big deal. But at the end of the day, aren’t you willing to give up all these little tax preferences in exchange for not only a lower rate, but a growing economy?”

Lead1, an association of about 130 athletic directors at college football’s highest level, has pushed the same line as Graham, saying getting rid of this deduction will hurt athletes in non-revenue or Olympic sports at universities across the country.

“All the profit (from athletic departments) goes to Olympic sports and giving 77,000 student-athletes college scholarships,” said Tom McMillen, Lead1’s president and CEO. “Unfortunately, the areas that will get cut here are the non-revenue teams. A lot of kids will lose their scholarships.”

It is unclear if Graham’s amendment will get a vote on the Senate floor. Even if it makes it into the Senate bill, Graham’s restoration of the deduction would have to make it out of a conference between the House and Senate to hammer out a compromise between their versions of the bill.

“I’ll fight for it, and we’ll see what happens,” Graham said, who supports the overall tax package.