Spencer Hall can write. Plenty of us can put sentences together and hopefully at least convey meaning, but Hall has a rare gift for combining deeply personal writing with scathing critique. He’s done it before, but I’m not sure he’s done it better than he did this week with his college football preview essay titled “Broke.”
Even the title works on multiple levels: broke, as in the financial state Hall and his parents — teenagers when he was born — often found themselves in during his youth. broke, as in the financial state many college athletes (specifically football players) find themselves in before, during and after college. And broke, in the broader sense of the structure of “amateur” athletics, which many of us would agree could use some fixing.
But where to start? Hall weaves a convincing narrative that one place to look is by paying athletes. He arrives there using his own personal history growing up financially strapped — maybe not in poverty, but teetering on the brink in a way that keeps you on edge and adjusts your version of normal.
It resonated for me, having grown up in at least the same ballpark Hall describes — where money was tight and the paychecks every two weeks were vital for living. It wasn’t a bad way to grow up at all; it makes you appreciate what you have. But as a result of growing up that way and not having anything resembling a college fund, it also has shaped a long-held belief that deviates quite a bit from Hall’s conclusion: that a college education, in the case of football players fully paid for, amounts to fair payment for playing a sport.
What Hall brings to the forefront, though, are three inescapable points: 1) the amount of money in big-time college sports these days, largely thanks to TV deals, is obscene and it is making a lot of people very rich. 2) None of those people are the athletes who are the very reason the sports exists, and many of these athletes come from poverty and stay there after college is done. 3) The idealized notion of a paid for college degree comes with a lot of caveats and loopholes. There are success stories held up as examples, but there are also countless failures. Some of the problems can be squarely blamed on the individuals; plenty of others can be deemed institutional.
It’s possible to come away from reading Hall’s piece without immediately thinking athletes should be paid. But it’s not possible, at least in my mind, to come away from it without giving it some more serious thought.