This is not a complete defense of the NCAA because a complete defense of the NCAA would be absurd. The NCAA needs fixing, needs it yesterday, and this is that rare stance that most everyone in and around universities or athletics can agree on.College sports produce billions -- not merely millions -- of dollars. But the athletes we all tune in to see -- and whom the biggest corporations in the world trip over themselves to associate with -- are eligible only for a stipend that equates to something like minimum wage.
Athletes in sports that don't produce big revenue are free to turn professional whenever they can, while athletes in football and men's basketball are required to stick around at least long enough to make the adults rich. The unpaid labor must follow strict guidelines when it comes to changing schools, while the millionaire coaches are free to come and go as they please. And this is only the beginning of the unfairness and hypocrisy.
So, no. This is not a defense of the NCAA and its broken practices.
This is a reminder that the system isn't as broken as we often make it out to be. This is a reminder that the system can work for college athletes.
This is a reminder that as much as the system is designed to make money off teenagers with no better option, the system is also designed so that there is no better option for those teenagers to make a much better life for themselves.
Kim English took a platform. He may or may not be drafted into the NBA next month, yet he will always have a platform. English was a very good college basketball player, part of the most successful senior class in Missouri history, a tough, gifted spot-up shooter and willing teammate.
But he's not a great athlete, at least by NBA standards, and struggles to create his own shot against better defenders. So playing basketball might not give him the same long-term financial security as it does for the chosen few.
So English took advantage of the system. Maybe you noticed the way he used Twitter or interviewsto make himself more than just another guy reaching for the NBA.
"It's a career tactic I've used," he says. "My personality helps out some. It puts you on a stage. If you're a likable person, you can be set up to be taken care of. In sports, you either have to be really good or really likable to be important."
English says someone at ESPN already told him there's a job waiting when he's done playing. But he might want to coach, too, and Frank Haith has assured English he can do it with him. English is also curious about working in an NBA front office, or maybe scouting. It is easy to imagine a GM giving him a chance.
These are all options, real options, because of how English handled his four years at Missouri. He made friends, remembered names, handled himself like a professional and generally made sure that his inclusion on an NBA roster would not determine whether he became a success.
That wouldn't be possible without the exposure and experience of playing major college sports.
A.J. Steward took an escape. He holds no illusions about playing professional football, because in reality, those would actually be delusions. Steward has something just as sweet though, just as meaningful to him, and that's an escape.
He grew up in a rough part of St. Louis where his high school gave free or reduced lunch to 90 percent of the students and didn't have state accreditation for three of Steward's four years.
Steward just graduated from Kansas, though, and that wouldn't have been possible without football. The sport gave him a scholarship, which gave him a chance, and he's the only one of his high school friends to go to a major university. A lot of his friends at KU have $50,000 or more of loans to pay back.
"That's crazy to me," he says.
Without football, Steward says he'd have tried to go to a junior college but who knows how that would've ended? His studies at Kansas might not have ended well without the kind of academic support provided at bigger schools.
Steward did too much going out and not enough opening books when he got to Kansas, and he was put on academic probation. That was before he thought more about tomorrow instead of tonight, before he earned his way onto the honor roll.
In 12 days, he begins work as a graduate assistant at Rice. His dream is to be a college coach. Playing college football made that realistic.
"I never thought about it like this until now," he says. "But I worked (the system) in a way that it helped me. I got my education paid for. I got all these opportunities, I networked, and I met a lot of people to help with my career going forward.
"I did take something out of it. If you barely get by, don't move toward your future and think in a small box, then the system beats you. But if you work the system, you can take something out of it and come out on the winning end."
Emmanuel Lamur took guidance. The sons of Haitian immigrants, he and his twin brother Samuel played football together at Kansas State and are the first in their families to attend and graduate college.
Lamur won't spend much time wondering what his life would be without football -- "that's up to God," he says -- but he is certain he made the right decision to play for coach Bill Snyder.
"Just listening to the 16 goals and applying it to myself," Lamur says. "He has a plan for every player. If you follow the goals, it's going to lead you to a good life. Doesn't have to be about football."
Lamur is in Cincinnati right now chasing his dream of playing in the NFL, and that's his entire focus. If it doesn't work out, he'll think about the next step then. But he knows he will be successful, regardless, because he has a degree and a long list of contacts from Kansas State and college football.
In that way, Lamur took more from college football than the sport took from him. He has the platform and the opportunity, a chance at the dream with the safety net of a degree. Lamur learned time management at K-State, to never "eat chips on the couch," because there's always something productive to do.
He learned that someone's always watching, so you should do your best to make sure they see something good and to follow good people because that's how you stay out of trouble.
Not everyone uses the opportunity. Let those other people wonder what they wasted.
"I know I needed this in my life," Lamur says. "You have to know what you're getting yourself into. Because then it's on you."
Of course, the NCAA has problems that need fixing. Everyone involved understands that. English says he sees both sides of the exploitation debate, and Steward thinks there are better ways to provide for the athletes who provide for the schools.
In other words, you shouldn't take the agreement of any of these athletes to talk for this column as an endorsement of the NCAA, but as a reminder that the flawed system still holds enough mechanisms and benefits for a motivated athlete to take something more important than a larger monthly stipend.
Sometimes, if it falls right, college sports can mean a family's first college graduate turns into a millionaire without ever playing professionally. That's how it worked out for Scott Pioli, you know.
"I'm back in Washingtonville, N.Y., flipping pizzas for a living without college football," the Chiefs' general manager says.
Pioli is the finished product of English, Steward and Lamur. He worked his way to a platform by networking and staying on task during a college experience that started off rough enough that his grades suffered and he got kicked off campus and nearly out of school.
Pioli calls that his "wake-up moment." The rest has been a largely self-motivated path to success made possible by college sports.
"If you want to wake up, you do," he says. "Or you blame people or systems or circumstances. But you have to grow up at some point."
College sports uses its athletes for profit. That part of it is inevitable. But the athletes can use college sports for something more important.
That part is up to them.