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In the United States, the jock tax is the colloquially named income tax levied against visitors to a city or state who earn money in that jurisdiction. Since a state cannot afford to track the many individuals who do business on an itinerant basis, the ones targeted are usually very wealthy and high profile, namely professional athletes. Not only are the working schedules of famous sports players public, so are their salaries. The state can compute and collect the amount with very little investment of time and effort.
The modern "jock tax" originated in 1991, when California imposed the tax on the earnings of Chicago Bulls players who traveled to Los Angeles to play the Lakers in that year's NBA Finals. Illinois soon retaliated, imposing its own "jock tax" on out-of-state players—although Illinois' tax is only imposed on athletes from states that impose jock taxes on Illinois-based players. Other states followed suit; by 2014, the only U.S. jurisdictions with major professional teams without a jock tax were Florida, Texas, Washington state, and Washington, D.C. (the three states do not impose personal income taxes, while the U.S. Congress specifically prohibits the District of Columbia from imposing its income tax on non-residents who work there).
The following is an in-depth analysis of modern-day examples and criticisms of the jock tax.
After the 2000 Major League Baseball season, Alex Rodriguez signed what was then the largest contract in American sports history, a ten-year contract worth $252 million, with the Texas Rangers. The tax collecting authorities of other states were notified alongside the public, and would separately demand that Rodriguez's employer withhold the tax due from his salary and remit it to each of them. Even though the state of Texas did not have an income tax, he still had to pay the various state income taxes applied to each away game in each location except for Florida, Illinois, Washington state, and Washington, D.C. (as an American League player, he would visit the three states every season, while he would only visit the District if his team was involved in an interleague game against the Nationals). It is estimated that Rodriguez paid $520,000 a year for state income taxes outside his own state.
Tennessee "privilege tax"
Tennessee, which has only a limited income tax that excludes wages and salaries, began imposing its own special form of jock tax in July 2009, which it called a "privilege tax", and later repealed in April 2014. The tax was unique in several respects. First, it was a flat-rate tax of $2,500 per game, imposed on all players who were on a team's roster for a game in the state, including Tennessee residents. However, the tax applied to a maximum of three games per calendar year. In another quirk, NFL players were exempt—when first imposed, the tax only applied to NBA and NHL players. In addition, the tax did not go to the state treasury. Instead, taxes imposed on NHL players went to the operators of Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, home to the Nashville Predators, while taxes imposed on NBA players went to the operators of FedExForum in Memphis, home to the Memphis Grizzlies (both teams are Tennessee's only representatives in their respective leagues). Finally, because the tax was categorized as a fee, it could not be claimed as a deduction on other states' tax returns.
Because of the quirks of the tax, some players on visiting teams were required to pay more in privilege taxes than they earned from games played in the state. Another individual who was disproportionately affected by the tax was Chris Johnson, who earned $54,000 for eight games with the Grizzlies under two 10-day contracts in 2013, but was still subject to the full $7,500 privilege tax—the same amount collected from Grizzlies players who were on the team for an entire calendar year. The collective bargaining agreement that ended the 2012–13 NHL lockout called for team owners to pay their players' privilege taxes.
The Tennessee privilege tax was repealed in April 2014; the lead sponsor of the repeal bill noted that because the tax was imposed on NBA and NHL players but not on NFL players, it was constitutionally suspect. It stopped being collected from NHL players starting with the 2014–15 season, while the tax continued to be collected from NBA players through the 2015–16 season.
Criticism of the "jock tax"
In 2003, the Tax Foundation conducted a study on the jock tax. It concluded that the tax is:
- Poorly targeted
- Arbitrarily enforced
- Unrealistically burdensome to athletes
According to the foundation, the jock tax "forces traveling professionals to file potentially dozens of state and local income tax returns annually." The foundation argues that the jock tax is poor tax policy.
An analyst for the foundation pointed out in 2014 that because taxes are imposed on everyone who travels with a professional sports team, many individuals subject to the tax are not the stereotypical highly-paid athletes:
Many trainers and scouts do not earn much more than the national median income, and players earning the league minimum in some leagues, such as Major League Soccer, earn only around $35,000 per year. This can lead to a substantial tax complexity burden because many team members have to file income taxes in around 15-20 states each year. ... the tax hits many people who may not be able to easily absorb the substantial compliance costs associated with the tax.
- West Federal Taxation: Individual Income Taxes, 2005 Edition, Thomson South-Western.
- Rocco, Matthew (January 31, 2014). "New Jersey 'Jock Tax' Tackles Super Bowl Earnings". Fox Business. Retrieved July 18, 2014.
- Merchak, Aaron (July 8, 2010). "State Jock Taxes: Is LeBron Better Off in Miami?". Tax Foundation. Retrieved July 18, 2014.
- "Red Wings' Brian Rafalski says Tennessee 'jock tax' too much". USA Today. Associated Press. March 26, 2010. Retrieved July 18, 2014.
- Rau, Nate (April 7, 2014). "Tennessee legislature abolishes jock tax". The Tennessean. Retrieved July 18, 2014.
- Lowe, Zach (July 19, 2013). "Paying to Play in Memphis? The Strange Case of Tennessee's Jock Tax". Grantland.com. The Triangle. Retrieved July 18, 2014.
- Pilon, Mary (December 12, 2013). "For Some Players, Tax Ensures a Loss Even After a Win". The New York Times. Retrieved July 18, 2014.
- Stephens, Chris (January 31, 2014). "Both Teams Lose at Super Bowl because of Jock Taxes". Tax Foundation. Retrieved July 18, 2014.