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It's time to start treating the NFL like the business it is

Threatening to take away the NFL's tax-exempt status may be the nudge the NFL needs to fix the off-field issues that ail it.

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Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

As everyone tries to find ways to force change in the NFL for the troubles of the past week — from the Ray Rice situation to Adrian Peterson's arrest — the conclusion many people reached is that the only thing that could force change is money.

Identifying that solution is simple enough, but acting on it is close to impossible. An often suggested boycott of the NFL isn't feasible, since many outraged at the NFL's moral compass won't stop watching football no matter how bad it gets. Take even SB Nation for example: We're all appalled by this past week, but we're still posting vigorously on Sundays, because people — many of whom are also appalled at the NFL — still want to enjoy the better aspects of the nation's most popular sport.

As David Roth wrote, the NFL has a power problem, but there is little any of us can do to make that change. However, United States senators Cory Booker and Maria Cantwell may have found a way. According to the New York Times, Booker introduced a bill to strip 10 sports leagues, including the NFL, of their tax-exempt status, because they have more than $10 million in annual revenue. Cantwell's bill would do the same for the NFL because of the league's refusal to force a name change of the Washington Redskins, whose name is a dictionary-defined slur.

As the Times noted, the bills face steep odds, but both of them bring to light just how ridiculous it is that any major sports organizations — most notably the NFL and the NCAA — are exempt from paying taxes.

The NFL has received tax-exempt status because it's considered a "trade organization" — the teams technically get the money the league generates, then pay the league back in dues. The teams pay taxes, but the league itself does not. However, pretending the NFL is equivalent to a labor union or a charitable organization is patently absurd. Even though nonprofit organizations can claim most unnecessary expenses as legitimate ones, the NFL still reported nearly $9 million profit in 2012. It reported nearly $327 million in total revenue and paid commissioner Roger Goodell $44 million.

But this isn't just an NFL problem. The NCAA, which claims nonprofit status because of its efforts to assist student-athletes, claimed $871.6 million in 2012 and is now spending record amounts on lobbying to keep those same athletes from getting any of the money. Even small foot races that deal with enormous sums of money, take extravagant trips and pay organizers handily, claim nonprofit status.

It's time to end the facade.

Tax-exempt status is supposed to be provided to organizations that have a purpose greater than making a profit, specifically ones that attempt to aid the public in their mission. Even discounting this past week's incidents, the NFL has proven that it is solely focused on turning a profit and benefiting itself and its teams, as USA Today pointed out:

"If there is a justification for providing tax exemption to business leagues, it would be they operate for the public purpose of aiding commerce for all within a broad segment of some type of business or business in general," said (Philip) Hackney, an LSU law professor who previously worked as an IRS attorney litigating exempt-organization tax issues. "Commerce is important to our country, and we should encourage those who are working on it in a rather publicly minded manner. These (sports) organizations, in my opinion, are anything but public-minded in their profit interest. They are focused on the profits of their franchises."

There is a misguided tendency for people to view sports organizations as entities that transcend the business world, like they're focused on the greater good. But in reality, that's just rhetoric. The NFL is not focused on the public good and upholding a high moral standard. The NCAA is not full of educators hoping to protect athletes from consumerism. Your local marathon is probably not giving nearly as much to charity as you think it is.

Even discounting this past week's incidents, the NFL has proven that it is solely focused on turning a profit and benefiting itself.

We as fans want our sports teams and our favorite leagues to stand for something more. That's why we applaud players' charity efforts, why we point to their religious views when their character is questioned and why we pretend we really know anything about the character of the players we watch on television. We care far more about the moral compass of the NFL than we do firms on Wall Street, even though in reality, they're very much in business for the same purpose.

Part of the reason for this is that we identify as NFL fans, and therefore, we don't want to act like we explicitly support a team or a league with a failing moral compass. The NFL has exploited that loyalty, claiming that it exists for the fans, for the communities in which its teams play and for the good of the sport.

As has become strikingly clear (and really should have been all along), the NFL exists to make a profit. It doesn't exist to do anything else, and it's probably misguided to want it to be anything more. The NFL is a business, and it's time to start treating it like one. That might be too much to ask, given the current political climate, but a viable threat of that happening might be enough to get the league to do the right thing — and try, once again, to trick us into thinking it's really about anything more than making a profit.