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The NCAA is bad, but comparisons to slavery are wrong

South Carolina players gather during practice at the NCAA women's college basketball tournament Friday, March 23, 2018, in Albany, N.Y. South Carolina faces Buffalo in a regional semifinal on Saturday.
South Carolina players gather during practice at the NCAA women's college basketball tournament Friday, March 23, 2018, in Albany, N.Y. South Carolina faces Buffalo in a regional semifinal on Saturday.
Frank Franklin II, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — All right, time out. The next former athlete who compares college athletics to slavery gets a technical foul or ejection.

It’s clear the NCAA is a rotten organization and that it doesn’t treat athletes fairly. Its rules are arcane, antiquated, hypocritical, nonsensical and unfair and wouldn’t be tolerated in any other arena in America. It's also clear the NCAA is using the cheap labor of athletes to make billions of dollars for themselves, TV, advertisers, coaches, universities and, indirectly, professional football. Notwithstanding, any comparison to slavery is ridiculous and overblown.

Yet former star player Spencer Haywood recently said, “If you have 11 blacks on your team and you are, say, in Kentucky, and they’re creating all this wealth but not getting paid? It does have a tinge of slavery.”

Earlier this year former football player Eric Dickerson said, "It really is slavery." Three years ago Chris Webber and Isiah Thomas likened the players to indentured servants. Webber noted, "(Former NBA star Bill Russell told me any system that gets free labor is slavery." Two years ago Florida football player Jalen Tabor called it a “modern form of slavery.”

All of the above are black, but white reporters are also making this charge. Someone named Steve Siebold, who is identified as a “Critical Thinking Expert and Psychological Performance Coach,” wrote an opinion piece for the Huffington Post under the headline, “NCAA Football Slavery Scheme.” According to him, the NCAA reasons that because most of the players come from poor, inner-city families, they should just be happy with a free college education. “This was the attitude of most slave owners,” he continues. “They believed that their slaves were just lucky to have food and shelter … How dare they ask for anything more.”

Yes, I'm a white, middle-class male, but anyone should be able to recognize that there are obvious problems with comparing collegiate sports to slavery, even for “critical thinking experts.”

For one thing, it trivializes slavery. It trivializes the horrors of a barbaric, dehumanizing institution. It’s like comparing a grueling ultra-marathon to the Bataan Death March.

Collegiate sports shouldn't even be in the same sentence as slavery. They're nothing alike.

It isn’t slavery when athletes are not being compelled to participate in college athletics or accept athletic scholarships. No one forced any of them to sign a letter of intent, and athletes can leave the team and the school any time they want (unlike indentured servants).

They can simply, you know, pay for school and be “free” — free to get a job slinging pizzas or flipping burgers to pay for school like their fellow classmates. An estimated four out of five college students hold part-time jobs. Universities are making millions of dollars off those students, too.

It isn’t slavery when countless students would trade places with the athletes and gladly accept the athletic scholarship. For that matter, many of them would join the team without a scholarship and play for nothing.

It’s not slavery when there are thousands of kids who join the team each year as walk-ons, meaning they receive no scholarship and no benefits that are not available to the rest of the student body. Remember the “Rudy” movie?

It’s not slavery when you receive payment for work, even if it is just a scholarship and spending money — up to $5,000 a year now.

It’s not slavery when the system, besides providing the opportunity for a free education, is essentially an apprenticeship or tryout for the professional ranks. Yes, they do this for minimal reward, but there are many students who work for little or no pay in their fields trying to build a résumé and polish their skills for future employment. They’re called interns. Even med students do it, only it’s much more difficult and grueling than what college athletes endure.

Minor league baseball players are paid an average of $2,150 a month, which is poverty level — somewhere in the neighborhood of minimum wage — and considerably less than the value of a football or basketball scholarship. They work long hours for little money and can’t claim overtime, and Major League Baseball is making lots of money off their sweat — more than $15 billion in revenues. Nobody’s calling it slavery.

And just because many of the athletes are black does not make it slavery either, or racist. College sports are composed of all races.

The NCAA deserves all of the considerable criticism it receives and then some, but comparing it to slavery is way off base.