Court weighs Ohio’s taxation of out-of-town athletes
Columbus, Ohio — An Ohio law that singles out professional athletes and entertainers for taxation even when they’re in the state just a few days a year is unconstitutional, say several sport leagues including the NBA, NFL and NHL who want the state Supreme Court to strike the law down.
At issue is an Ohio law that excludes entertainers or athletes from a ban on municipalities taxing people who perform services 12 or fewer days per year. The leagues say the law singles out professional athletes for less fair tax treatment and overlooks the fact that despite high salaries the athletes’ careers are relatively short.
An ex-NFL player, meanwhile, has sued over Cleveland’s interpretation of the law, saying the city unfairly imposes a 2 percent income tax based on games played in the city as a percentage of total games played.
Former Chicago Bears linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer says the city should only have taxed him based on days spent in the city compared with the length of his season, which comes out to a much lower rate.
Cleveland’s system, known as the “games-played method,” treats professional athletes as if they were paid only to play in games, Stephen Kidder, an attorney representing Hillenmeyer, said in a filing with the Ohio Supreme Court, which heard arguments Wednesday.
This ignores everything else NFL players are paid to do, including mini-camps, preseason training camp, team meetings, and practice sessions, Kidder said.
Under the method most cities use, an NFL player who traveled to a city for two days during a 160-day season would be taxed on 1/80th of his income. But in Cleveland, a visiting football player is taxed just on the game, which amounts to five percent of his income based on a 20-game season (which includes exhibition games), Kidder argued.
A second former NFL player, retired Indianapolis Colts center Jeff Saturday, argues in a separate lawsuit he shouldn’t have been taxed at all by Cleveland during the 2008 season because he was injured and not in the city for the days he was taxed.
Cleveland says its interpretation of the law is based on the thing that players are hired to do: play football games.
A case Hillenmeyer uses to bolster his argument involves the late actor Paul Newman’s successful challenge of taxes he paid filming the 1973 movie “The Sting.”
California wanted to tax Newman only for the approximate month he was in California filming, but Newman won an appeal that said he should be taxed at a lower rate because his actual contract — similar to a professional athlete’s season — was 54 days, according to Kidder’s court filing on behalf of Hillenmeyer.
The Ohio Attorney General’s office argues the athlete-entertainer exception in the state tax code is constitutional.
A ruling is expected in a few months.