Devon Watkis, at his graduation ceremony in 2013 from Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., where he was an offensive lineman on the football team
Courtesy of Devon Watkis

Billions of dollars are at stake in the college football business. The NCAA and college presidents need to move faster in providing more-equitable compensation and after-college insurance to football players. Recently, the NCAA took a small step toward reforming the fiscal abuse of young athletes by allowing universities to pay them a stipend. But real reform is already too late for young men like 24-year-old Devon Watkis. 

Watkis stands a stout 6 feet 6 inches tall and walks with a slight limp. He has a mild case of arthritis that doctors say could become worse in years to come. He has had surgery on one of his knees, which continues to bother him, as does an ankle injury. He has also suffered four or five concussions, he says. That is quite a medical sheet for a man who graduated two years ago from Rutgers University, where the first intercollegiate football game was played against Princeton.

Watkis has no regrets about playing offensive lineman for Rutgers. “You realize that certain things come with the game,” he says, and he would do it all over again if he had a chance.

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But he says he wishes that the people who supervised his sport had the foresight to consider paying athletes and providing health care for a lifetime of pain resulting from making college students cheer, coaches smile and trustees gush over football dollars.

Watkis says that a small, $500-a-month stipend would have been very helpful when he played, because he could not get typical college jobs, since he spent most of his time training, lifting weights, practicing and traveling. He now wishes that the NCAA provided lifelong medical coverage for all of his football-related injuries. 

“I think that health coverage for sustained injuries from playing is more important than paying huge sums of money to college players, because the money eventually dissipates, while the injuries stay with you for life,” he says.

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It appears that fair compensation for top-level college athletes is moving along with “all deliberate speed,” which means very little speed at all for athletes.

The great capitalist Adam Smith wrote, “Wherever there is great property, there is great inequality.” College football is a great property, and Americans need to face up to the fact that there is a massive inequality taking place that affects mostly young African-American men (pdf). Many come from lower-income households, where formal education was either stifled or not emphasized. Their entries into top-notch schools as gridiron gladiators is viewed by some as a rare opportunity to get a four-year college education.

College football is a $16 billion industry, and it seems that everyone is getting some real coin, except for those young athletes who make the sport possible. There is plenty of money to go around. Broadcast dollars are now the biggest drivers of college football revenues. For instance, Disney’s ESPN has a $7.3 billion contract with the NCAA to cover football games. 

Amateur athletics involves a level of servitude that reflects a rather sophisticated form of low-cost, practically free, labor. Free labor—starting to sound familiar? Some major college presidents behave as plantation owners who do all they can to procure more money for their enterprises. The presidents employ well-paid coaches, who are overseers of the young labor, which produces the wealth.

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Basketball great and sports-industry broadcaster Grant Hill told the Huffington Post this year that “there’s something un-American about the NCAA’s current set-up.” The college athlete should be compensated at a level that’s comparable to the billions brought in by TV contracts (read: no free labor).

Maybe college presidents and the NCAA should call Watkis for some more advice. His simple $500-a-month plan for all Division I athletes makes sense. Maybe a large part of their pay should be placed in an insurance escrow fund for football-related medical issues that come after college ball.

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Historian John Hope Franklin called slavery that great American free-labor system, a “peculiar institution.” Today Americans are faced with another peculiar institution, which is not propped up by a government. Instead, it is supported by corporations and universities. It might be constructive if the purveyors of college sports, especially football, pondered whether some of the habits of institutional slavery have infiltrated institutional amateur sports.

Benjamin A. Davis is an assistant professor of broadcast and digital journalism at California State University, Northridge, where there is no football team.