Headline Sports Business

Student-Athletes = 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.

By Darren Heitner

Darren Heitner created Sports Agent Blog as a New Year's Resolution on December 31, 2005. Originally titled, "I Want To Be A Sports Agent," the website was founded with the intention of causing Heitner to learn more about the profession that he wanted to join, meet reputable individuals in the space and force himself to stay on top of the latest news and trends.

Heitner now runs Heitner Legal, P.L.L.C., which is a law firm with many practice areas, including sports law and contract law. Heitner has represented numerous athletes and sports agents as legal counsel. He has also served as an Adjunct Professor at Indiana University Bloomington from 2011-2014, where he created and taught a course titled, Sport Agency Management, which included subjects ranging from NCAA regulations to athlete agent certification and the rules governing the profession. Heitner serves as an Adjunct Professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law, where he teaches a Sports Law class that includes case law surrounding athlete agents and the NCAA rules.

10 replies on “Student-Athletes = Indentured-Athletes”

Darren – An interesting comparison to be sure and there are many similarities between actual indentured servants and NCAA athletes.  Except for one HUGE difference.  In the case of NCAA athletes, in addition to getting room, board, free trips, and a seemingly endless supply of school licensed apparel, they also get an education – often worth up to $150,000 over 4-5 years.  They get trainers, and weight rooms, and access to some of the best education resources on the planet to boot.  And in many cases they also get access to a worldwide alumni network filled with highly successful individuals looking to help out a former college athlete. 

Sure there are flaws in the system.  The cost of attendance should be adjusted so that student athletes can afford trips home, some extra spending cash, and maybe even a vacation or two; just like other college students.  But there is a pretty well established social contract at play here.  The athlete gets access to a great academic institution and gets to go for free.  And in return they play a sport that the school monetizes.  It’s hardly indentured servitude. 

 This is a great comparison and sheds a much needed light on the current situation with student athletes. While we are receiving scholarships that pay for our necessities such as tuition, room and board, etc. Athletes are expected to balance… school, life and athletics hence the name student athlete. As a student athlete myself I take an 18 hour course load along with NCAA regulated 20hour activity weeks in season. That itself is a 38 hour work week, where am I supposed to fit in time for a job when I have classes to study for? Paying athletes through an allowance system would allow them to focus on their academics and athletics rather than trying to figure out how they are going to pay for their health insurance, cell phone bills, etc… Overall a great article!

Not knowing much about indentured servitude before reading this article I found that you were able to clearly paint a picture that explained times then and related well to times now.  I have always been a huge proponent that history always finds a way to repeat itself.  It seems this scenario could be a clear example of how that happens.  Great piece of writing! 

Not knowing much about indentured servitude before reading this article I found it to clearly explain what the practice was and how it relates to today’s athletic community.  In any other realm of today’s society indentured servitude would be considered a completely unethical business practice.  It is very interesting to pair what is thought of as an out-dated form of work to the sporting community we all know, love, and support. 

This article is insulting to any thinking person.  Some college scholarships are worth over $200,000 over the life of the scholarship.  This hardly sounds like indentured servitude.  If these athletes think they can get a better deal they can try to turn pro out of high school and see how that works out.  The tone of this entire story sounds like it was written by a shark out to find a few more crumbs to gorge himself on rather than someone who is thinking of what is in the best interests of the student-athlete. 

There has always been a perpetual consistent ongoing manipulation of socio-economically deprived people with exceptional athletic ability. The master, king, pharaoh, school, owner, oversee-er is always seeking opportunities to gain more wealth using human beings and or animals to maintain the status quo. When parents fail to educate their children and allow others the opportunity to instill their value systems it creates a cultural imbalance which leads to many vulnerabilities. We must teach our children the true purpose of life and that’s not athletics.

agreed, athletics is not the true purpose of life but can be very useful in teaching young people about the true purpose of life. (hard work, responsibility, team work etc). I learned more about people and life on the court/field than I ever did in a classroom.

Your comparison goes a bit far – indentured servitude was indeed an agreement of exchange between labor and owner with the promise that at some point labor could become the owner  but it also served to establish class, race, and gender divisions and in the end all that labor could hope to gain was the freedom to own. Division I college athletes recieve a free college education, the opportunity to graduate with no debt, job training, athletic training, skill training, nutrition counseling, strength training, shoes, clothing, travel per diem, bowl game gifts, academic support AND a living stipend with which to pay rent and food. If you believe this is indentured servitude I encourage you to rethink your historical reference in historical context. If you think this is indentured servitude than you must also believe the same for professional internships, apprenticeships, low paying jobs etc….. Athletes are NOT abused or oppressed, they are kids who have an opportunity to better themselves mentally and physically and for the best, to showcase their talents on a national stage, getting professioanl attention and professional sport opportunities. If college athletes think the college AMATEUR system is unfair, than they have the choice NOT to participate – they can hone their skills at a prep school or overseas or with their own private trainer for 2-3 years and then try their luck at getting drafted. If the system were so unfair I expect many would do so. But college athletes know as does anyone who works with a college athlete on a daily basis that college is where they can get the top training, development, opportunity in SPORT while also having the ability to get a college degree. They are not superstars, they are kids, who play a game and for most of them that game will not continue after they graduate. But they CAN graduate from a 4 year university, with no debt, and if they did it right, a whole pocketful of networking references and college faculty who will vouch for them on the job market.

Comments are closed.