Are student-athletes prisoners? According to the NCAA they are. The Intercept picks up the story on an unusual use for a 13th amendment clause on unpaid prison labor.

College sports is a business – a very lucrative business. In 2015, the top [college athletic] programs made a combined $9.1 billion. The NCAA, for its part, just signed an $8.8 billion dollar deal with CBS to air March Madness, the college basketball championship tournament.

That very obvious dynamic undergirds a lawsuit filed by former NCAA athlete Lawrence “Poppy” Livers asserting that scholarship students who play sports are employees and deserve pay. The Livers case argues that student-athletes who get scholarships should at least be paid as work-study students for the time they put in.

At the root of its legal argument, the NCAA is relying on one particular case for why NCAA athletes should not be paid. That case is Vanskike v. Peters.

The use of the case stems from several other law cases alleging unpaid labor; two of them are previous lawsuits against the NCAA in which the case was cited as precedent, and the NCAA won.

IN THEIR RESPONSE to the NCAA’s motion to dismiss, Livers’s lawyers are arguing that the precedent was mistaken for applying the 13th Amendment exception for unpaid prison labor in a case dealing with non-prisoners.

“Defense Counsel’s insistence that Vanskike be applied here is not only legally frivolous, but also deeply offensive to all Scholarship Athletes – and particularly to African-Americans,” Livers’s rebuttal to the NCAA’s motion says. “Comparing athletes to prisoners is contemptible.”


13th Amendment Clause

The 13th Amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude except as punishment for a crime.

Vanskike, a prisoner, lost his case because of this wording: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

Let's return to the question: Are student-athletes prisoners?

Apparently so. The NCAA won two other rulings in which it cited Vanskike v. Peters.

So, not only are the athletes prisoners, those not on full scholarship are also probable debt slaves.

Perhaps the NCAA should have argued that the athletes are paid, and the payment is their scholarship. However, such an argument might result in bidding wars, something the NCAA desperately wants to avoid.

Mike "Mish" Shedlock

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