What is the "Jock Tax"?
Last week, Deadspin posted a tipster's shot of Andrew McCutchen's bi-monthly paystub. It features some pretty large numbers that are liable to make you wish you'd tried a little harder in Little League. But you can also see that he gets taxes taken out of his paycheck in a number of states and cities. In fact, there are so many deductions that after Pittsburgh, Florida, Illinois, Missouri, St. Louis, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Arizona, Ohio, and Cincinnati the list continues on another (unshown) paystub.
Those numbers reflect the so-called "Jock Tax," which requires traveling professionals to pay income taxes in every state where they earn money. The colloquial name comes from the fact the tax, which can technically be applied to anyone who earns money in a state where they don't live, is essentially only ever levied against professional athletes because of their publicly-known salaries and traceable work schedules. (Athletes generate so much money in taxes that some states, like California, have specialized employees in their revenue departments who work exclusively on athletes’ tax returns.)
The earliest mention of applying this law to athletes in particular comes from an incident in 1968 when an appeal was brought before the State Board of Equalization of the State of California for taxes owed by a player on the San Diego Chargers who didn't live in the state.
But it didn't start to be enforced in full until 1991. In the NBA finals that year, the Chicago Bulls defeated the Los Angeles Lakers four games to one. As the story goes, the officials in California who had influence on these things were so enraged by the loss that they decided to take it out by levying taxes against Bulls' star Michael Jordan on the bountiful earnings and winnings he'd made while playing in their fine state. In response, Illinois passed a bill that was colloquially known as "Michael Jordan’s Revenge," which imposed their income tax specifically on anyone from a state that taxed Illinois residents. Or, athletes from California.
Since then, more than a dozen other states passed their own bills to tax out-of-state athletes for the games played there, and even a few cities followed suit. By now every state with a professional sports franchise, with the exception of Texas, Tennessee, Florida, Washington, and the District of Columbia, imposes the "jock tax." Lawmakers tout these taxes as a way to fund athletic venues without saddling constituents with the full cost.
For athletes raking in serious salaries, these daily taxes can add up. Especially if there are winnings involved. For the 2014 Super Bowl held in New Jersey, players on both the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks were taxed for their time in the state at a rate of 8.97 percent. A fraction of their oversized income is added to whatever bonuses they earn—$92,000 per player for the winning team, $46,000 for losing players—and even the Super Bowl ring, normally valued at $20,000 to $25,000, to calculate the earnings to be taxed. Although the Broncos ended up losing, if they had won, Peyton Manning, who made $15 million last year, would have owed around $60,000 in taxes.
Of course it's easy to say athletes can afford it. But the staff that travels with the team, like trainers and equipment managers who don't make millions, also have to pay taxes to every state in which the team plays.