NCAA Athletes, Unpaid Interns and the S-Word: Exploring the Rhetorical Impact of the Language of Slavery
33 Pages Posted: 16 Jul 2015 Last revised: 15 Mar 2016
Date Written: July 4, 2015
This essay presents initial results of a literature survey that explored the use of the rhetoric of slavery by workers' rights groups. It presents quantitative results for uses of terms such as slave, slavery, modern day slavery, plantation, Jim Crow and Juan Crow as these terms were used by immigrant worker advocates, opponents of labor trafficking, advocates for unpaid interns, National Collegiate Athletic Association athletes, professional athletes and in the context of prison labor. The essay also provides a qualitative analysis of how these terms were used by NCAA athletes and unpaid interns and a discussion of the criticism leveled at them for drawing the slavery analogy for voluntary employment relationships.
The essay argues that, even though these advocates were criticized for their rhetorical use of the language of slavery, the rhetoric was effective because it helped frame NCAA athletes and unpaid interns as workers engaged in labor deserving of protection under labor and employment laws, even though they were not being paid for their labor. It describes how legal cases brought by these workers, including O'Bannon v. NCAA; Northwestern University and College Athletes Players Association (CAPA); and Glatt v. Fox Search Light have helped redress their problems. The essay argues that these two case studies illuminate the public understanding of core principles of the Thirteenth Amendment, including the right to own and sell your labor and the existence of a floor for free labor created by labor and employment laws. When employment relationships violate these principles, even if the relationship is voluntary, advocates can and will turn to the rhetoric of slavery to advance their cause because the arrangements violate the spirit of the Thirteenth Amendment.
Keywords: NCAA athletes, college athletes, unpaid interns, rhetoric, thirteenth amendment, slavery, modern day slavery, plantation, labor organization or unionization, wage and hour laws, definition of employee, antitrust laws, employment discrimination, sexual harassment, race discrimination
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