Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Why Would a Republican Senator Want to Tax College Athletes?

It's a mystery!
October 31, 2019
Why Would a Republican Senator Want to Tax College Athletes?
BATON ROUGE, LA - OCTOBER 17: Leonard Fournette #7 of the LSU Tigers during pregame before playing the Florida Gators at Tiger Stadium on October 17, 2015 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

North Carolina Senator Richard Burr is a no socks with loafers kind of guy—the kind of soft, country club Republican who used to dominate the GOP.

On Tuesday, Burr did something that Republicans used to never do: Triggered by the NCAA’s surprise announcement to end the ban on “student-athletes” being compensated for the use of their name, image, and likeness—just like any other scholarship students on campus—Burr proposed penalizing student-athletes who choose to earn money in the private sector by creating a tax on their scholarships.

Once upon a time, it would’ve been kind of crazy to hear that a Republican senator was proposing a new tax in response to the news that a class of citizens would be given access to the free market. But if we’ve learned anything about the Republican-oriented body politic over the past few years it was the folly of believing what “the base” wanted was zombie Adam Smith, or “free markets,” or “true conservatism.”

In fairness, it’s possible that rank-and-file Republican voters did like those things once upon a time and changed course only when a Republican president demanded it of them. But in hindsight, it seems equally possible they cared about these ideas qua ideas, but only as a means to an end.

Whatever the case, modern conservatism has been set aside in favor of “Owning the Libsism,” or “Bro Conservatism,” or “nationalist-conservatism”—or whatever you want to call Nanny-state Hawleyism. This shift has made it hard for members of the old guard—like Burr—to figure out what they have to pretend to stand for. And the lesson they have learned from Trump—not unreasonably—is that the only thing Republican voters really care about today is using the government to ensure that people in the other tribe get their comeuppance.

Which brings us to college athletics. Allowing student-athletes to be compensated for the use of their names and likenesses by businesses which are making money from them is, from the standpoint of market economics, a no brainer. What’s more American than being able to sell your name and likeness for cash?!

When you look at the economics of college athletic scholarships for the two major sports—basketball and football—you see that in many cases, the scholarships they’re granted are, as value-propositions, pennies on the dollar for what they’re worth on the free market.

Yes, it’s complicated and yes, the averages would be shaped in large part by the top end of the scale. But on balance, the math tilts heavily in favor of the bureaucrats and against the athletes. Especially a certain type —those who are on the bubble of being able to have a professional career, or who get injured while in school, these are the prime earning years of their athletic lives.

For decades they have been denied the ability to earn income by a soviet-style cartel that lines the pockets of bureaucrats on the backs of athletes’ labor. Not only has the cartel prevented them from earning anything from the billions (literally) in ad revenue they receive, but it also banned them from even making money signing jerseys, or doing advertisements. As Eric Theodore Cartman once asked the dean of the University of Colorado, “When we sell their likeness for video games, how do we get around payin’ for our slaves . . . uh . . . ’student ath-o-letes’ then?”


But in 2019, Republicans don’t look at this issue through the lens of markets or freedom or opportunity. Instead they look at it through the lens of white identity politics—the melange of grievance, racial resentment, and outright racism that animates much of Trumpism. And when you score the issue using white identity politics, you understand exactly where Burr is coming from.

First, the debate came to a head this year because of California’s decision to enact a Fair Pay for Play act. Because the law originated in liberal California, obviously, it must be a bad thing and opposing it has the virtue of making the libs angry.

Also, it was supported by famous athletes such Lebron James. Who is liberal, black, and a celebrity elite. Strike two.

And finally, the act will overwhelmingly benefit the people of color who make up a disproportionate share of the athletes in revenue sports. Strike three.

But there’s more. Burr is playing to the conservative sports fan with student loan debt who didn’t have the ability to earn an athletic scholarship whose grievance is against “them”—the kids who are now getting greedy and trying to make a buck when they should be grateful just for this high-class education “we’re” giving them.

And a series of polls make clear that there’s a clear racial component to all of this. The most recent, from Morning Consult, shows a majority of black respondents and a minority of white respondents supporting every potential option when it comes to athlete compensation.


There are other reasons that people like Burr say they oppose athlete pay. There are those who are conservative in the most literal sense—averse to change and clinging to tradition or nostalgia for the sports they love. A subset of those would argue that maintaining the system is simply an effort to protect amateurism and not turn college athletics into a semi-pro league.

The problem with that argument is that the amateurism ship sailed long ago.

I am typing this very column with cuticles that were gnawed raw during the countless, interminable commercial breaks during the (#1 ranked) LSU Tigers victory over Auburn on the CBS “Game of the Week” this past Saturday. CBS pays $55 million for the right to air that one game for 15 weeks, so the network makes the “student-athletes” wait a little bit longer between possessions than they do in normal games to ensure they can slot in extra ads. The process of the game is literally being bent to commercial considerations.

The billion dollar NCAA March Madness tournament has an extensive list of “corporate champions and sponsors” who are inserted into the games in an increasingly absurd fashion. Following a big win, players cut down the nets using the tournament’s “official ladder” and exclusive Fiskars scissors. And when the NCAA champion climbs that special Werner ladder to celebrate next April, it will be just before midnight on a Monday—which back in my day was a school night.

But it isn’t just the one day of class they’ll miss, the “student-athletes” are obligated to report to the Final Four for “Media Day” the Thursday before the big games. A PR event is certainly an odd thing to force student-athletes to skip class for, but they’re not being given that sweet, sweet scholarship non-money to attend Geology 201, amirite?


As it stands, everybody involved in this charade is cashing in besides the largely poor and largely black stars of the show. Former LSU basketball coach Dale Brown put it succinctly, “Look at the money we make off predominantly poor, black kids, we’re the whoremasters.”

And these whoremasters—the coaches and administrators—are in many cases being paid by the taxpayers. In 26 of the 50 states the highest paid public employee is a college football coach. And yet for some reason there haven’t been any senators bemoaning the fact that these guys are “cashing in” on taxpayer dollars or proposing exotic new taxation schemes to target them. I wonder why that is.

In 2011, Senator Burr tweeted that we “need to reform fed govt to run more efficiently, not raise taxes on already struggling American families.”

Hard to argue with that!

But 2011 was a simpler time for a Chamber of Commerce Republican: Taxes low. Obama bad. The end.

These days he needs a new approach. So Richard Burr is trying to cash in on grievance conservatism on the back of a bunch of poor kids of color who deserve the same rights to their name as the rest of us.

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is The Bulwark’s writer-at-large. He was previously political director for Republican Voters Against Trump, communications director for Jeb Bush 2016, and spokesman for the Republican National Committee.