I’ve been as confused as anyone by the difference between a slave and an indentured servant. I was under the impression that the latter was just a euphemism, or gentler way of defining a slave. To the contrary, it turns out that they are quite different terms, and their meaning has a clear distinction.
Slaves are people who, against their wishes, are bound into free labor, and seen as being “owned” by their master. In fact, there is an actual purchase of slaves, at least in the history of the early years of the American experiment. In other places and times, there may have been no purchase, just the capture and impounding of individuals against their wishes.
An indentured servant, however, has somewhat willingly entered into a contract by which there is an exchange of a desired condition for a stated period of time. The illustration above demonstrates how Irish girls or women, for instance, agreed to enter into servanthood in America, in exchange for free passage to this country. The assumption is that there is a specific period of service expected, although many of the girls who signed such a contract found themselves in service to their “benefactor” for life…not exactly what they had anticipated. And their treatment was often questionable.
Indenture is a form of apprenticeship, in which a person works for an “employer” for free for a period of time in exchange for the teaching of skills, such as woodworking, metal working, silversmithing, or perhaps becoming a ferrier (shoeing horses.) It could also be an office-related skill, such as accounting or sales.
The topic of indenture came to my attention in a New York Times op-ed article by my friend, Joe Nocera. For a number of years Joe has been a critic of the NCAA sports organization, calling for reform of the way in which the organization dominates the lives of college athletes. His point in this article was that college athletes are promised a college education in return for their performance in inter-collegiate sports. These performances, many times, amount to a huge financial boon to the college or university, while the student-athletes struggle to survive.
Granted, they get free tuition, athletic training and benefits, and sometimes room and board, but the burden of living in an expensive academic community is overwhelming. I remember working at a soup kitchen in a college town and seeing scholarship students, sometimes athletes, coming for a meal because their scholarship didn’t include meals. The athletes are not allowed to work during the school year, and they can’t be given money by sponsors to assist them. The rules are rigid, and are monitored constantly. Consequently, student athletes can be caught in an economic whirlpool which drains them.
Even apart from that, Nocera raises the question over and over again about compensating college athletes. His point, one which is widely recognized and supported, is that academic institutions survive because athletes perform and draw huge amounts of money to them. In some cases, schools on the verge of collapsing improve their intercollegiate sports programs and literally come to survive because of them. Yet, the millions of dollars received from TV contracts, sports uniform contracts, and expensive ticket prices for games never financially benefit the student athlete. The NCAA has strong rules against such compensation, and it is clear that the organization is in the back pocket of the media and sports equipment industries.
Such athletes, Nocera contends, are little more than indentured servants. They sign agreements to perform in return for scholarships and the stated benefits. Yet they can’t afford to travel home for holidays, or even do their laundry at times. It’s a powerful argument, and the NCAA is up in arms fighting it. You don’t fight this way unless you have something worth fighting for. Like money.
Illustration Credit: forgottenusa.blogspot.com