Student Athletes are Basically Indentured Athletes

The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics was established in 1989 as an entity dedicated to searching for ways to positively reform college athletics. 

Today, the commission will meet in public in Washington D.C. for the first time since its October 2009 meeting in Miami, Florida.  In 2009, the commission was concerned about the escalating costs of college sports.  Two years later, the discussion will partially focus on whether those costs should increase based on compensating athletes beyond current scholarship limits.

I hold a firm belief that college athletes should receive better compensation for the services that they provide to their universities and the NCAA.  My hope is that The Knight Commission’s influence will sway the NCAA to permit athletes to be compensated beyond the current scholarship limits.  A few weeks ago, I wrote the following piece comparing “student-athletes” to indentured servants.  This is the first time that I am publishing it.  I am very interested in your thoughts.


Indentured servitude was a popular form of labor in colonial North America.  Poor, underprivileged individuals would voluntarily provide services demanded by their “masters” in exchange for lodging, clothing, food, and other “necessities.”  However, indentured servants were not entitled to any remuneration in the form of wages or a salary.  In early America, many employers did not have the capital to provide any sort of monetary compensation for the laborers.

Hundreds of years later, the indentured servitude system persists.  Instead of calling the workers indentured servants, the NCAA calls them student athletes.  The phrase is little more than a veil for a true descriptor - indentured athletes.  Nobody forces indentured athletes to accept an athletic scholarship to perform their services for universities, major college conferences, and the NCAA, but similarly, indentured servants were not coerced into working on farms and in shops in colonial America.  Much how indentured servitude was a way for some immigrants to work their way out of miserable living situations, college sports provides an opportunity for a select few individuals at a sub-par socio-economic level to go from rags to riches.  Unfortunately, many indentured servants never gained prominent roles in society.  Over ninety-eight percent of indentured athletes do not make it to the professional level in their respective sports.

The similarities between indentured servants in colonial America and indentured athletes in present-day college sports continue.  A typical indentured servant was under twenty-one years old, worked for roughly four years, and was not paid wages.  A common indentured athlete enters college at eighteen-years old and exits four years later.  He does not receive any paycheck.  Instead, the indentured athlete may receive a year-to-year athletic scholarship, which is supposed to provide for lodging, food, and clothing, but fails to reflect the full cost of attendance.  Further, in colonial America, employers justified indentured servitude by claiming that they did not have the requisite capital to pay wages and a salary to their employees.  Similarly, in response to the mounting support for pay-to-play, which would at least bridge the gap between what indentured athletes are currently earning in scholarships and the actual full cost of attendance, many universities are countering with the claim that they do not have the funds to support such a system.

Indentured servants signed “indenture agreements,” which provided necessities to the workers in exchange for the workers performing labor for their masters.  Indentured athletes sign National Letters of Intent (NLIs), which are non-negotiable agreements that guarantee indentured athletes one-year athletic scholarships in exchange for the indentured athlete’s commitment that he will attend a specific college and perform his talents in his particular sport(s).  The college then earns revenue based on its indentured athletes’ performances through ticket sales, merchandise sales, television rights deals, etc.  In colonial America, tobacco plantation owners provided lodging, food, and clothing to their indentured servants, but retained the full amount of the revenue received from the sale of the tobacco that was harvested by the servants.

Unfortunately, in colonial America, indentured servitude eventually died and slavery flourished, due in-part to the increase in the cost of employing indentured servants.  While college sports does not seem to be headed down the same path, we have come to a point in time where indentured athletes also need to be replaced.  The individuals should not change, but the system needs to evolve.  The cries of no cash have fallen on deaf ears.  The system of indentured athletes should be destroyed and replaced by a college sports landscape where athletes, who also happen to be students, are prized and rewarded for their talents.

This article originally appeared on the Sports Agent Blog.


Popular Video