Sports Law Blog
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Monday, March 29, 2010
Taxing professional athletes

The state of Tennessee last year enacted a Professional Privilege Tax on Professional Athletes, taxing home and visiting NBA and NHL players $ 2500 per game, up to three games. (H/T: Deadspin, via FIU student Wes Plympton). Detroit Red Wings Captain Brian Rafalski has objected to the tax, noting that seventeen teammates who make in the $ 500,000 range (minimum NHL salary) end up losing money on the days they play in Tennessee. Proceeds from the tax apparently go to the municipality to fund various public parks/recreation projects. Interestingly, the NFL is exempted from the tax because the league had an existing rule that would penalize any state that attempted to impose such a tax. Minor league players are exempted as well (the original proposal covered only players making $ 50,000 or more).

It is easy to criticize this, as one commentator does, as a money grab targeting a vulnerable group. After all, no one is going to have sympathy for the group Rafalski is trying to protect--players making half-a-million dollars and having to pay $ 7500.

But dig deeper. The tax is expected to raise more than $ 1.1 million a year for municipal programs. The players are potentially playing in a publicly financed arena on which the state and local governments will not recoup their financial investments, so it is hard to blame the city for trying to get something.

I do wonder whether there is an Equal Protection problem here--not in singling out professional athletes, but in exempting the NFL. Is there a rational basis for taxing two leagues and not the third? Is avoiding a penalty from the NFL a rational basis?


Oh, this one is definitely about money--if you get my drift.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 3/29/2010 7:24 PM  

I have a client who earned $1,700 for the one game he played in the state and his tax paid was $2,500. We have notified the Players' Association of this.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 3/29/2010 10:18 PM  

Interesting question. I do wonder if this would survive a rational basis review, considering it does not apply to minor leaguers, presumably because they earn less, yet does apply to lesser-earning NFL players. This might be too arbitrary of a regulation to survive RBR.

Additionally, the flat $2500 tax amount also seems arbitrary, given that different sports have varying salaries and earn varying profits in ticket sales.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 4/15/2010 12:46 PM  

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