Paying Student Athletes Is More Than Just A Question of Compensation

To pay student athletes or not to pay student athletes? That is the question and an inciting one at that.

One of the more recent, high-profile and very public dust-ups on the topic happened via Twitter when two ESPN personalities had a difference of opinion as to whether well wishes or cash would be more comforting to Georgia running back Nick Chubb in the face of a devastating injury and an uncertain future as a football player.

When you put it that plainly, though, the answer feels embarrassingly obvious. A kid has a chance to make millions of dollars doing something he loves if he's in peak physical form, except now his peak physical form is in jeopardy. And so are his millions. So, yeah, cash might be preferable here.

A look at the bigger picture, however, reveals a far more tangled web of questions and complex issues, the surface of which even a month's worth of tweets couldn't scratch. For example, about the cash, how much money is enough money? What would be a fair salary for these student athletes? Is this salary in lieu of tuition, room, board and stipend or in addition to? Will football players be paid more than lacrosse players since football is likely a bigger revenue driver for the school? For that same reason, should more be paid out for men's sports that women's? Will star players be paid more than everyone else on the team?

With such provocative questions on the table, one would think onlookers would be treated to a healthy debate on the topic. Disappointingly, those with the strongest opinions on the matter have proven lazy, rarely rising to anything more than emotional responses to an emotionally charged set of circumstances. Ultimately the sides break down to "I feel like college athletes should get paid because they make millions for their respective schools and they should be compensated" and "A free education is compensation enough."

Unfortunately, the heavier burden lies mostly with those seeking a change to the system. It's as though a ruling has been made on the field, and now they'll need to present enough evidence to overturn the call. That will prove nearly impossible. They'll be trying to mount a campaign against the "college degree as cure-all" rhetoric that is part of the very fabric of our society. For years, the NCAA has been pitching America on the idea that no greater opportunity can be afforded a student athlete than that of a free college education. And not just them — America never stops selling America on the value of an education. Our current president believes educating our youth to be the best investment we can make in our future.

It's hard to ignore the racial and socioeconomic matters at hand in the pay-for-play argument. The call for wages in college athletics rings loudest when the story line juxtaposes a poor black kid with a struggling family back home who's putting his future earning potential on the line every week and a fat cat conference administrator making a half a million dollars a year while universities rake in obscene amounts of money for participating in a bowl game or going to the Final Four. It's an ugly reality of the college athletics construct for sure, but those who wish to right the ship should be careful of a reliance on such narratives and tread lightly. The questions are weightier down that path.

What systems will be put in place to help a kid who has never been exposed to significant amounts of money manage his finances? If a kid from an underprivileged background leaves college at 22 years old having collected a salary for four years but not having earned a degree and doesn't go pro, will we still celebrate the victory of the salary he was able to earn or mourn the loss of opportunity from the degree that he didn't?

Yes, of course, that happens now without the paycheck or the proverbial pat on the back.

Contrarily, many of the pundits who have the platform to express their feelings about why we should just pay those poor, academically challenged, athletically gifted black kids now without the facade of them being students first are folks who know very well just how fleeting a career as a professional athlete can be. There are the folks who report on the many instances of professional athletes going broke and having nothing to fall back on when their playing days are done. And they are the same folks who go home from their jobs on air to tell their own kids and nieces and nephews and cousins and godchildren how, more than anything else, a college education gives them the best options down the road.

And with that, the questions get tougher and more uncomfortable.

Just what is it about these poor black kids, then, that renders that advice irrelevant? Are these protestations of sympathy nothing more than a thinly veiled lack of expectation and an extension of our society's minimizing of opportunity for Americans who look a certain way and come from certain neighborhoods?

It's easy to start pointing fingers and say that we've known for a long time that many of these kids struggle in school and see sports as their only way out of their poverty. The people advocating for the college athlete as a full-time, paid position may see themselves as do-gooders helping kids who need the money most and logical thinkers who are brave enough to let them off the hook and exist fully in their capitalism.

It's entirely possible, though, that these guys are just the latest in a long line of folks to blame for not encouraging these kids to see their education in all its glorious and long-term potential.

Maybe they're right to want to get our student athletes paid, but at what cost?

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