Kirk Cousins talks pay-for-play dilemma

Kirk Cousins is one of the sharpest college football players I've ever covered. People often mock the term student-athlete -- they're justified, in many cases -- but Cousins, a three-time Academic All-Big Ten selection who has been Michigan State's starting quarterback the past two seasons, fits the description.

But even a smart guy like Cousins can't figure out a solution to the pay-for-play dilemma in college sports, a topic ESPN.com is exploring throughout the week.

Colleague Dana O'Neil features Cousins in a story that examines athletes on full scholarships vs. typical students and whether the athletes should get more for their contributions to universities. Give it a read if you haven't done so already.

Cousins will be the first to admit he has it extremely good. He can tell you without prompting how much his education at Michigan State is worth -- $78,000 (of tuition) because he's an in-state resident. And more, he has the insight to realize that pinning a dollar figure to the value of an education doesn't do the education justice.

"We're speaking, at the age of 22, 23, from a bit of a naive perspective,'' Cousins said. "I don't think any of us can understand what having a college degree can do for you going forward and, honestly, we won't until maybe we retire.''

But here's where it gets complicated.

O'Neil goes on to explain how Cousins still must pay costs like his university car registration, food, gas and rent for July and August, when the schedule prevents football players from taking courses and, therefore, prevents them from receiving their scholarship money.

"This is where everyone says, 'OK, go get a job,''' Cousins said. "Well, I can only really work for the month of July, so that's difficult. What can I do for one month? Plus, I'm quite busy for 11 months and July is the one month where you catch your breath.''

The irony is that there are plenty of ways Cousins could make additional spending money without the university having to open its wallet. If only the NCAA would allow it.

As a member of Athletes in Action, Cousins spends much of his offseason speaking to community groups -- church services, youth groups, rotary clubs, whichever is interested. Under NCAA rules, he can be reimbursed only 50 cents per mile for his travel and receive one meal. A businessperson making the same sort of speech could earn a four-figure check.

These are areas where reforms could help. College football players remain on campus practically year-round, so they can't go home, get jobs, earn money and save money. As someone who had jobs or paid internships every summer throughout college, I couldn't imagine not having ways to earn a steady paycheck.

On the other hand, as the story notes, allowing athletes to be paid for speaking appearances is a potentially slippery slope.

It wouldn't take long for a clever and unethical booster to exploit the rule to funnel money to top-level athletes.

And that is the entire conundrum of paying athletes in a nutshell. For every good intention, there is a loophole waiting to be exposed. For every small gap in a full scholarship, there is the large payout of a free education.