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NFL's A Nonprofit? Author Says It's Time For Football Reform

Baseball may be America's pastime, but if you're counting dollar signs and eyeballs on fall TV, football takes home the trophy. Part sport, part national addiction, part cult, writer Gregg Easterbrook says, the "game that bleeds red, white and blue" could use some serious reform.

His book, The King of Sports: Football's Impact on America, is a conflicted one, but Easterbrook is OK with that. "I think in our modern polarized debate, we tend to assume that you're either for something or against it," he tells NPR's Robert Siegel. "The intermediate position — that you really like something but you're aware that it has deep-seated problems — is harder to fit into modern discourse. ... I love football, and I want it reformed."

Easterbrook talks with Siegel about some areas of the industry he'd like to change, from youth football, to NCAA athletics, to the National Football League — which was chartered as a nonprofit.

Interview Highlights

On the NFL's nonprofit status

It's a scandal that I can't understand why people aren't marching in the streets over, I suppose. The headquarters of the National Football League is chartered as a nonprofit — and treated by the IRS as a nonprofit — due to a few key words that were slipped into a piece of legislation 50 years ago. The individual teams probably pay corporate income taxes, but we don't know since most of them don't disclose any figures. Most of them receive public subsidies but don't disclose anything. The top of the NFL — Roger Goodell, the commissioner — his $30-million-a-year paycheck comes from what looks on paper to be a tax-exempt philanthropy.

... Judith Grant Long, a researcher at Harvard, calculates that 70 percent of the cost of NFL stadia has been paid for by taxpayers. In general, the public subsidizes pro football to the tune of around $1 billion a year, is what I calculated in my book. And yet it's phenomenally profitable — subsidized up one side, down the other, and yet a very profitable business.

On why even public universities shouldn't get tax exemptions for football

Most aspects of collegiate sports [are] tax deductible, not just football. But football is where the big money is. [At] the typical large public university, there's eight or nine dollars involved in football for every one in all other sports combined. And you can't rationalize the NFL receiving tax exemptions, because the NFL is just an entertainment organization. Colleges, on the other hand, they serve a beneficial social purpose. So we don't mind them getting tax exemptions, but not for the football program. The football program brings in more money than it needs.

When Stanford and Virginia Tech met in the Orange Bowl in January 2011, the game boasted the highest combined graduation rate in football bowl history. "Neither the network nor the NCAA said anything about it," Easterbrook says.
Mike Ehrmann / Getty Images
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When Stanford and Virginia Tech met in the Orange Bowl in January 2011, the game boasted the highest combined graduation rate in football bowl history. "Neither the network nor the NCAA said anything about it," Easterbrook says.

On why schools like Virginia Tech, which has one of the best player graduation rates in the industry, don't brag about their success

You never hear that because that's bad for business. The NCAA doesn't want to talk about graduation rates. Division I football players [have an] overall graduation rate of 55 percent. That's not only below students at the comparable universities as a whole — football players should graduate at a higher rate. They get five years. They don't have to pay for college. They get special tutoring. It's never mentioned by the NCAA or any of its partner networks because it's bad for business. Three years ago, Stanford and Virginia Tech met in the Orange Bowl. That game was the highest combined graduation rate in football bowl history, and neither the network nor the NCAA said anything about it. They want the bar to be kept low.

... [Virginia Tech has] 20 consecutive winning seasons at the big-deal football level and 77 percent graduation rate ... for its football players. Very admirable track record. Most colleges don't have admirable track records. Some places, it's terrible. LSU, when they won the national championship five years ago — their football graduation rate was 44 percent. But did you hear that on ESPN? Fox? CBS? Of course not.

On why football rankings should factor in graduation rates

People respond to incentives. If you're a college football coach, your only incentive is to win. Nick Saban of [the University of] Alabama has won the last two national championships. His contract gives him nine times the incentive payments for victories as it does for graduation rates. So, what, at the University of Alabama, football is nine times more important than education? Maybe that's true, but if you change the incentives, you change people's behavior. If Alabama's graduation rate was included in its poll ranking, Nick Saban's behavior would change, and so on throughout the system.

On how football can be fixed

For young people — parents wondering "Should my child play football?" Not before middle school. I think the evidence is ironclad on that. High schools should stop allowing year-round football. [Football should be offered] during the season only, so boys have time to get their grades done and get other extracurriculars. Colleges should have six-year scholarships instead of the current year-to-year scholarship, so that once your football days are over, you get two or three semesters to fix your grades and graduate. And finally, the NFL should lose its tax subsidies.

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