LAWRENCE — The defensive tackle with the deep belly laugh and wide smile didn’t set out to become some revolutionary in the ongoing clash against the NCAA. He doesn’t claim to be one — nor does he necessarily want the title.
Keon Stowers would rather think of himself as a college student, a sociology major-turned-news junkie who loves to read about social causes and what’s happening in the world. You know, things that will make him a better person.
Stowers, a junior captain who plays defensive tackle on the Kansas football team, wasn’t always like this. When Stowers was a boy, growing up in a hardscrabble neighborhood in Rock Hill, S.C., his mother would sell the family’s food stamps while battling her own crippling drug issues. His father faced similar demons. His home life was volatile. The refrigerator was often empty.
“I know what it’s like to go without,” Stowers says, sitting inside Kansas’ Anderson Family Football Complex on an October day.
Stowers is talking about advocating for the rights of college athletes, and in some ways, his own childhood informs the way he looks at the world. He’s seen teammates from similar backgrounds struggle to get by on the usual scholarship provisions — tuition, fees, books, room and board. He’s seen the pain and long-term damage that the sport of football inflicts on his teammates.
This is part of the reason why Stowers joined the “All Players United” movement, an organized reform campaign targeted at the NCAA. The campaign was launched by the National College Players Association, an advocacy group for college athletes; Stowers heard about it from a teammate, freshman kicker Austin Barone.
“We’re standing up,” Stowers says, “just to fight for something that is right.”
For now, Stowers isn’t doing much beside scribbling “APU” on his gear and educating teammates about the campaign‘s mission. His involvement began on Oct. 4, when he and a few teammates wore the letters “APU” during a home game against TCU.
But for Ramogi Huma, a former UCLA linebacker and the president of the NCPA, it’s still an encouraging sign. For years, college athletes have been afraid to say much of anything on the current NCAA system, fearing reprisal from coaches or a loss of their scholarship.
“It’s kind of an example of how this thing can spread,” Huma said. “We didn’t have any relationship with Keon, and then a player can look at what we’re advocating, and take a stand on his own.”
The NCPA has been advocating on behalf of college athletes since 2001. But the APU movement, according to Huma, began as a way to support active college athletes who joined the potentially landmark class-action lawsuit “O’Bannon vs. NCAA,” named for former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon.
For the NCPA, some of the basic goals are simple: Reducing the risk of brain trauma in college athletes; raising scholarships to reflect the “full cost of attendance” at schools; preventing players from being stuck paying sports-related medical expenses.
Some of the goals, though, are more significant, such as allowing players to make money off commercial opportunities, or funneling money from million-dollar TV contracts into trust funds for athletes, dependent on academic performance.
“When the naked ear hears someone say ‘pay college athletes,’ they automatically think ‘OK, they want hundreds of thousands of dollars a month, they want to be able to ride around in a Mercedes-Benz and stuff,” Stowers said. “That’s not the case.
“You have guys like myself and plenty of other guys that play college football that came from a tough background. They don’t have that financial support back home, that maybe need an extra $100 or $200 that’s added on for a stipend.”
Stowers can remember growing up in Rock Hill, S.C. He didn’t play football his first two years at Northwestern High, and his mother and father would both end up serving prison sentences on drug charges, according to The Rock Hill Herald.
But Stowers would be taken in by a high school teacher, Larry Shaw, and football turned into a catalyst for change. Stowers spent a year at Georgia Military College, a junior college, before arriving at Kansas in 2012. One year later, he was elected a captain. And when KU travels to No. 15 Oklahoma State on Saturday, Stowers will be starting in his usual spot at nose tackle.
Stowers says his position coach, KU defensive line coach Buddy Wyatt, has been supportive of his “APU” involvement, while KU coach Charlie Weis has taken a hands-off approach on the issue, saying earlier this year that he wasn’t familiar with it.
From an unvarnished view, Stowers is ostensibly saying that the NCAA is doing things wrong. But in doing so, he is acting something like a model of what the NCAA would like its student-athletes to be.
Stowers goes to class. He’s a leader in the locker room. He’s trying to make the most of his time on a college campus — a chance that wouldn’t have come without football.
“When I read about it. I was interested in it,” Stowers says. “And I was like: these guys are standing up for basically what’s right.”