With many of its players accruing lengthy rap sheets, charged with felonies ranging from illegal firearms possession to sexual assault, it would be safe to say the National Football League has been battling something of an image problem of late.

For example, roughly seven members of one team have been arrested over the past year -- some multiple times -- while much of the news agate pouring from the NFL wires more closely resembles a police blotter than standard news copy.

And just when you think it couldn’t get any worse, now the league finds itself on the wrong end of an Internal Revenue Service ruling that could cost it millions of dollars.

The league’s drug program agents - the folks charged with collecting urine samples as part of the NFL’s drug-testing policy, have been ruled as employees of the league, as opposed to independent contractors. Translation: The league is on the hook for the millions in employment taxes and related benefits for the DPAs.

According to various reports, the IRS ruled late in February that the NFL would have to chip in at least half of the 2006 employment taxes. The more than 70 or so agents, meanwhile, are eligible to file amended returns for the last three years to recoup the taxes they paid that the NFL should have.

And if possible, it could get even more expensive when the NFL pension and welfare benefits are calculated in.

Since its inception, the drug-testing policy of the NFL has been handled for the most part by former law enforcement officers, but the league has compensated them as independent contractors -- sans benefits.

The league has since contracted with a California-based drug testing concern, which also handles sample collections for Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League. The new company will begin its service to the league in April.

Currently, the NFL’s legal team is examining its options, but an appeal on any level seems doubtful, since the most recent IRS ruling upheld a previous ruling.

The NFL deserves to shoulder much of the blame in this situation as it does for much of its rougue image. Because of its stony silence on highlight reels glorifying trash talking and skull-cracking hits, the league has been a co-conspirator in its players flaunting an outlaw mentality. It has been its own worst enemy.

Had the league tried to mediate a situation that promises to be very expensive, instead of dismissing it like it did when the issue was first broached, it probably could have worked out a compromise.

Unfortunately, it may learn, and quite painfully, that the IRS hits far harder than any 250-pound linebacker.

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