June 25, 2010; Source: Daily Iowan | Tom Harkin and Charles Grassley are U.S. senators from Iowa, one a Democrat, the other a Republican, but they agree on one thing: They are mighty suspicious about the charitable bonafides of Big Ten college football—now that the Big Ten has expanded to 12 teams with the addition of the University of Nebraska.

The senators’ wrote a letter to Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany, dated on the same day that they received a letter from the president of Iowa State University expressing more than a little concern about the potential disintegration of the Big 12 conference as additional members of the Big 12 toyed with joining the PAC-10 or other conferences.

The senators are questioning the motivation for the Big Ten expansion, contending that it’s only for the member institutions’ bottom lines—not about whether the expansion furthers the charitable purpose of the conference. The senators seem agitated, writing that “(i)t appears that the majority of the Big Ten’s operations revolve around NCAA athletics and the marketing, promotion, and revenue-generating activities affiliated with those athletics activities. Moreover, most of the discussions surrounding the potential realignment of member institutions from one league to another appear to be designed not to further the charitable operation of the Big Ten.”

According to the Cedar Rapids Gazette, the two Iowan legislators have also sent similar letters to representatives of the Big 12, PAC-10, Southeast, Atlantic Coast, and Big East conferences, asking them to disclose their expansion plans and television contract finances. Harkin doesn’t have a track record in this area, but questioning the charitable purposes of groups with unchallenged charitable designations is Grassley’s métier. They both might be a bit more motivated about the BCS futures of the ISU Cyclones and the University of Iowa Hawkeyes than about their charitable purposes, but the questioning of these high-powered, television contract-wealthy college football conferences is entirely appropriate.

Just how nonprofit are these nonprofit football conferences? Whose charitable interests are served? The definitions of charity are roomy enough for plenty of college nose tackles and pulling guards, but this love letter from the two Iowa senators might be a useful wake-up call for the NCAA—and maybe the Internal Revenue Service—to remember that charitable status isn’t automatic and shouldn’t be forever if the charitable purposes are no more than possession of a long-ago 501(c) tax approval.— Rick Cohen