CHICAGO -- Kirk Cousins spoke of privilege, responsibility and the value of a scholarship Friday at the annual Big Ten Kickoff Luncheon. Michigan State's quarterback was the perfect guy to deliver the message. He's smart, loves the Spartans, Big Ten football and public speaking.
The senior from Holland, Mich., does 20-30 engagements a year representing his school. This time was special. This one really hit home. The 1,800 in attendance not only applauded on Friday, they gave him a standing ovation.
A dreamer might conclude at that moment something had changed -- the national tide had turned against the wave of wrongdoing that has spread across the college landscape like an oil slick.
That would suit Cousins fine. He loves being an idealist.
|More on Big Ten|
His moment comes each time he, as a typical college student, goes to the gas pump and counts his purchase down to the penny so as not to overspend.
"Then," Cousins said, "you look across the street and your jersey is on a mannequin in a store. You say, 'Something is wrong here.' But what am I going to do about it, just try to voice it to you guys?"
This is not the next pay-the-players column. Cousins says up front, he doesn't have the answers. His one-liners might be better than his future vision.
But shortly before killing it at the luncheon, Cousins met with some reporters at the conclusion of Big Ten media days. Word had gotten around. Not-just-your-average-quarterback has a way-above-average intellect. He has something to say. Cousins has been saying it articulately for a while.
Those speaking engagements could make him a comfortable living in the real world. NCAA strictures prevent him from receiving any more than a travel reimbursement and the cost of a meal. Cousins understands that. Then again, he doesn't.
"A normal person is getting that same speaking opportunity and getting a couple of hundred dollars or more," Cousins said. "Not only am I not being paid to play the game, I'm being denied income for things I am doing.
"I understand how it can be out of control, though. If you're speaking and there is a booster who wants to help you out or wants to get you to come [to their school] they'll promise to pay you thousands of dollars to speak at these little functions. Which would not be right."
Every time Cousins speaks on the subject he contradicts himself. It can't be helped. He is among a vast population of college athletes who struggle to have enough money to change their oil, pay their cell bill or fix a flat. He also has that free education that Cousins says will total $100,000 in tuition, books, room, board and fees.
"We might not realize the benefit of the education we've been given for free until we're in our 60s and 70s," Cousins said, "[when we] retire and look back at where the education was able to take us in life."
He is merely voicing the NCAA conundrum. Sure, there is a case to be made for paying players. A good one. The two most powerful men in college sports agree -- Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany and SEC counterpart Mike Slive.
|Kirk Cousins doesn't get paid for his public speaking, but other athletes take money for doing less. (Getty Images)|
"A girl on the softball team can't sign a jersey and sell it for $2,000," Cousins said. "But Terrelle Pryor can do that and is capable of that. He's being denied income when a softball player isn't."
Cousins might have chosen the wrong former Big Ten quarterback to make his point. Pryor abused the system, leading a college life of privilege and entitlement before skipping town. Cousins has diligently worked his way up the depth chart to put himself in the discussion as the best Big Ten quarterback in 2011.
"It's not important," he said. "[Northwestern's] Dan Persa does things that I can't do. [Michigan's] Denard Robinson does things that I can't do. To compare them is comparing apples and oranges."
And Roses. After helping lead the Spartans to their first share of a Big Ten title since 1990, the next step is Michigan State getting to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1988.
Until then it's more penny pinching at the pump.
"These rules are preventing athletes from being paid for jobs they're already doing," Cousins said. "I think that's Step 1 ...
"The NCAA, to some degree, would like to protect us from that but the fact of the matter is, we've got to go live in the real world someday. It's a complicated issue. I don't take a stance on either side."
Actually, he does and those softball players won't like being called out.
"The way I see the world, the people who earn the money, make the money," Cousins added. "There's a reason the coaches are making upwards of a million dollars and the softball coaches at these schools aren't.
"There are revenue sports and non-revenue sports. My understanding is in the world, companies that make money and companies that don't make money get paid differently."
In one sit-down, Cousins sounds like a savant, a mogul, a corporate raider and a humble student-athlete. Maybe that's the key to public speaking. Kirk Cousins is many things. Boring isn't one of them.
"I'm not even asking to be paid," he said.
No, he's asking to be heard.