Should We Pay Our College Athletes?

James is a poor young football player from Jackson, Mississippi. His mother works three jobs to pay for the subsidized rent on their Section 8 housing apartment and his three younger siblings are all underfed, failing out of school, and flirting with engaging in gang activity.

All that stops James from going off the deep end is his engaged high school coach, who constantly pushes his young running back to reach his potential while riding him to a state title and a massive pay raise. Meanwhile, James, now a young star in the making, obtains a scholarship to play for the University of Mississippi.

On the way to leading the Rebels to a national title - and making his school over twenty million dollars in television money in the process - James becomes one of college football’s top players. Yet, despite his fame and celebrity, James makes nothing, remains poor, and is forced to watch powerlessly from afar as his mother slaves and his siblings starve. He is told that, while he is still a collegiate athlete, all of his earning potential is worthless and his family must simply wait - harsh consequences be damned - until James finally signs his first pro-contract.

Is this a hypothetical situation? Yes it is. Is it an extreme hypothetical? Yes. Is it a generalization? Again yes. However, to call it a novel story and suggest that it is not based solidly in fact would be wrong.

The reality is that there are dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of top Division I collegiate athletes who toil under these circumstances. All of these players know that their talent has given them an earning potential - even in college - that could help prevent their siblings from sliding towards gangs or drugs and give their families an overall better life. Knowing that, is it so surprising that collegiate sports agents all across the nation can so easily entice athletes with promises, handouts, and presents even though those same athletes are often aware of the drastic consequences of accepting such gifts?

Two days ago, former USC star running back Reggie Bush announced that he would forfeit the highest honor anyone can receive in college sports: his Heisman Trophy from 2005. This forfeiture came about as a result of an investigation into improper gifts that Bush received from agents, which stripped him of his NCAA eligibility for the 2005 season. Simply reading the ESPN brief would lead one to condemn Bush; after all, how can many of us understand why a smart, engaging, incredibly talented kid like Bush would risk losing the Heisman Trophy and millions of dollars in endorsements in exchange for a paltry few thousand dollars?

Miami Dolphins running back Reggie Bush

Dec 16, 2012; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; Miami Dolphins running back Reggie Bush (22) during the second half against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Sun Life Stadium. The Dolphins won 24-3. Photo Credit: Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports.

This article is not a call, as some reading it might presently suspect, for collegiate athletes to be paid outright. The consequences of such an action would be drastic and the idea requires considerable more analysis and deliberation before such a sea change could even be considered. Instead, this article is a call for empathy; it is a suggestion that sports businesspeople, commentators, and fans alike need to approach this issue without a “black and white” mindset.

The reality is that most middle class, educated, employed, and secure Americans (including myself) cannot possibly understand the poverty that some top athletes suffer, the trials their families go through, and the heartbreak it must cause to know that they could help their families but are not allowed to because of NCAA eligibility rules. Yes, rules are rules, and many poor athletes do manage to finish college the “right way,” but on second thought is it not possible to at least understand why these athletes would make such shortsighted decisions?

In many ways, the issue speaks to a contradiction between our societal values and our expectations of college athletes; a contradiction that we must at least try to understand before we judge them. Take yourself out of the college football context for a second and ask yourself - objectively - the following question: if you were dirt poor, your family was suffering, and you had the ability to help them, would you? I'm willing to guess that, for most of you, the answer was yes. The reason, of course, is that helping ones' family member in need is both the morally right thing to do and the course of action that most Americans would take.

Yet, therein lies the crux of the problem: what, aside from specific details and context, separates this basic moral conundrum from the short-sighted decisions made by the Reggie Bushes of the world? The answer: nothing. Stripping off the football perspective, contextual issues, and other extras from the essential question behind the problem of so-called “corrupted” college athletes achieves one key goal: it allows us to understand the underlying issue behind these athletes' decisions and, even if we still do not agree with their choices, at least empathize with their situation and judge their decisions with compassion and intelligence rather than ignorance and disdain.

Perhaps, if we do that, we may actually find a true solution to the problem.

Read about the closely related Cam Newton Saga.

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No, NCAA athletes should not be paid. Actually, if you think about it, they’re already being paid. With the cost of college tuition skyrocketing year-by-year, …

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