Every Tuesday in Touchdown Jesus, staff writers Cray Allred and Valerie Dunham engage with the popular and polarizing world of sports from a Christian perspective.

Should collegiate athletes be paid? I’m tempted to punt the discussion, not because I don’t have an opinion, but because I think the debate is fairly depressing. Do you believe that the coldest, money-grabbing gears of capitalism should be unbridled in pro sports? Or do you (naively) believe that amateurism is alive and well? Perhaps you’re simply willing to make peace with a hybrid system that stirs a dubious cocktail of labor, scholarships, agents, and academic standards. None of those options are inspiring. And whichever side you line up on, it’s very hard to apply the principle across the commercial and/or sports world consistently.

One quality of a good fan, and a good Christian fan especially, is the ability to prize the humanity of the winners and losers we watch. 

It’s tempting to remain indifferent, voting for the status quo with your fan dollars while the millionaires and billionaires hash it out in the various collective bargaining sessions across sports. While pressure mounts for the NCAA to come up with a non-scholarship compensation plan for student athletes generating billions of dollars in annual revenue, NBA owners are considering a push to increase the age limit for professional players from 19 to 20 years old.

But the status quo is incongruent. University football coaches are often the highest paid employees of their state. One-year scholarships and the prep-to-pro transition is often a farce. Ben Simmons, the top basketball prospect in the world, was disqualified from awards season due to poor grades, and withdrew from classes immediately after his team’s season was over. Arian Foster expressed no shame for accepting money while a poor, hungry student athlete. Scandals over recruiting violations and illegal kickbacks seem to lie under every rock that gets turned over.

The purity of amateurism—a concept that leads many to root harder for college teams than their much more skilled professional counterparts—is tarnished, and clinging to the slices of the product exhibitions that are, to our knowledge, untainted is becoming a taller task by the year. There is a time to cling (when that 15th seed becomes Cinderella during March Madness), but also a time to recognize that the stakes are financial (when every single player on Kentucky’s roster tests the draft waters).

One quality of a good fan, and a good Christian fan especially, is the ability to prize the humanity of the winners and losers we watch. We’re enthralled by the drama of humans exerting their whole beings to meet victory or heartbreak on a grass or hardwood stage. Not all players are skilled enough to become professionals, and not all are playing for a multi-million dollar opportunity. But all are human.

Peyton Barber is one such human, a running back who left the University of Auburn early. The “lottery ticket” analogy is often invoked in this discussion—how can you tell a young adult, let alone one growing up in poverty as many student athletes have, not to cash in the second their physical gifts become so profitable? Barber isn’t playing the lottery, though. He’s trying to earn a good job so he can rescue his mother from homelessness.

Kemba Walker, starting point guard for the Charlotte Hornets, isn’t a sterling example of the UConn program’s amateur/educational focus. He hadn’t read a book until his junior year. He did work to graduate three years early, but that was with the help of an internship credit granted on the basis of his future time spent in the NBA. For all the warts of his college career, he still stands as a human we can celebrate: a young man struggles with school, but managed to graduate with the help of tutoring, and gives fans of the college game many thrilling performances along the way.

Fans demand that coaches, teams, and broadcasters deliver us compelling entertainment in the form of physical competition. We dump billions of dollars into sports, and lament when our expectations aren’t met. Maybe college athletes should be paid a stipend, or maybe the integrity of their educations should be restored, or both. In any case, what we have is not good enough, and we should root for it to serve the human beings on display as well as it does those who cheer and boo them.

Image Credit: ESPN.com Illustration