The view from the inside

Kirk Cousins is conflicted.

As arguably the highest-profile athlete on the Michigan State campus -- the official BMOC as the Spartans' starting quarterback -- Cousins sees the throngs of the MSU faithful crammed in to Spartan Stadium on fall Saturdays. They rejoice in his touchdown passes as though he has just delivered salvation to their souls, screaming and yelling while high-fiving their peers, plenty of whom are wearing his jersey.

And somewhere in the bowels of the stadium in which the senior-to-be toils and labors, a green-visor-wearing accountant adds up the day's intake.

Of which Cousins will net exactly nothing.

On the other hand, he knows that, in one year, he'll graduate with a degree in kinesiology and won't owe anyone a dime.

Jeremy Warnemuende is conflicted, too. He's a sports reporter at The State News, Michigan State's student newspaper. The eldest of two boys from Frankenmuth, Mich., a town that boasts the world's largest Christmas store, he writes about Cousins' touchdowns and the Spartans' gridiron successes, adding to the hysteria and the hero-worshipping with his chronicles.

And he sees the money Michigan State is making thanks to Cousins' hard work and wonders whether it's fair that Cousins doesn't see any of it.

On the other hand, he knows that, in one year, after he graduates with a degree in journalism, he will have to find a way to help his parents pay back the loans they incurred so he could go to college.

Just in time for his younger brother to begin his freshman year.

The hot-button issue of paying college athletes is percolating in the corner offices of the college game's power brokers, with ideas and solutions offered on a seemingly daily basis.

Yet not even the people whose futures are being discussed can figure out what's really the right thing to do. What looks from the outside like such a simplistic argument is hardly that to those on the inside.

"It's complicated,'' Cousins said.

"I'm kind of torn on it,'' said Warnemuende, who has his fair share of spirited debates on the topic with his friends.

Delving into the day-to-day realities of the high-profile, full-scholarship athlete versus the no-profile, no-scholarship typical student should offer some clarification.

Get out an accounts ledger, and it all tilts to one side:
• Cousins will pay nothing of the $19,500 annual in-state tuition that Warnemuende's family will fork over.
• The $300 to $400 Warnemuende spends per semester on books? Cousins doesn't owe any of it.
• Warnemuende pays about $600 a month in rent (plus utilities) for the house he shares with three other guys. Cousins' apartment is part of his scholarship.
• Need dinner? Warnemuende and his housemates split the grocery bill. Cousins has a training table.

"I actually have it pretty good,'' Warnemuende said. "I know plenty of people who work two jobs and then certain nights they don't sleep because they're working night reception at the dorms just so they can get their school paid for.''

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.

A full ride, he explains, is a misnomer. Every year, he pays $100 per year to register his car on campus so the athletic department can get him a parking pass near the football field. That's $400 over the course of a college career.

Yes, he can eat at the training table for most meals, but he also has to buy some food for his apartment.

If he needs gas, he pays for it. If his tire blows out, he pays for it. When the cellphone bill comes due, he sends out the check.

It's not a lot, but it adds up, especially for a person who quite literally doesn't have the time to get a job.

And then there are the even bigger costs no one talks about.

For example, football practice starts in earnest in late July/early August, with two-a-days crammed in the first two weeks. The schedule makes it impossible for Cousins and his teammates to take courses during Michigan State's second summer session.
And because he's not taking classes, his scholarship money doesn't kick in.

Consequently, for the months of July and August, Cousins has to come up with his rent and food money. Worse, in August, he has to pay for an apartment he doesn't live in. During two-a-days, the Spartans must stay in the dorms.

"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.

I actually have it pretty good. I know plenty of people who work two jobs and then certain nights they don't sleep because they're working night reception at the dorms just so they can get their school paid for.

-- The State News sports reporter and Michigan State student Jeremy Warnemuende

A businessperson making the same sort of speech could earn a four-figure check.

"People like Kirk Cousins, they give the university a positive image because of what they do and how they portray themselves,'' said Warnemuende, an unlikely ally. "And I definitely think they do a service for the university. Everybody around here is very proud of them. They're out there putting Michigan State in a good light.''

But Cousins, more keenly aware of the realities of college athletics, understands the potential can of worms that would spring open should athletes get paid for speaking engagements.

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.

"We need to walk before we can run,'' Cousins said. "To pay student-athletes X numbers a week for living expenses is Step 7 or 8. We need to figure out Step 1 first. It's easy to make a comment. It's hard to really understand.''

And easy to see why everyone is so conflicted.

Dana O'Neil covers college sports for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1.