They were called “breaker boys,” the children who worked long hours at low pay in the mid-19th century through the early 20th century separating impurities from coal on a coal breaker. It was hazardous work, with the boys having their fingers bloodied up or even amputated by the conveyor belts. Some lost feet, arms, hands or legs when they caught in the machinery. Others were crushed by the equipment and killed, their bodies noticed only at the end of the work day by supervisors.
There are no more breaker boys, in part because technology made them no longer necessary, and in part because a horrified public – eventually – spurred the passage of child labor laws that disallow such dangerous exploitation. And yet, big-money operations still find ways to abuse or exploit young workers. College students are a common target, since much of the public accepts the idea that they are somehow young adult apprentices undeserving of a cut of the profits their employers – if that word can be used – are making from their work.
Unpaid internships are one form of exploitation. Such arrangements are not inherently abusive; if a student is getting college credit (one form of payment) and receiving genuine skills training, the deal can work for both worker and employer. The plan becomes exploitative when a big company is simply using young workers for free labor on some vague premise that the “experience” and contacts will help the worker get compensated later on. This is certainly how it was interpreted last year by a federal judge, who ruled that Fox Searchlight should have paid two “interns” who worked on the movie “Black Swan.” The interns were not really in any kind of educational environment, the judge ruled, but were essentially providing free labor for a wealthy Hollywood operation.
College athletes are similarly mistreated. They may not look as pathetic and tragic as the breaker boys, but the same dynamic exists: they work long hours, making millions and millions of dollars for the NCAA, the networks, the advertisers and the coaches. But underneath the glamour of being a college basketball or football star is an ugly truth. Most don’t end up being drafted into the pros. They get academic scholarships (with barely any time to study), but they are not guaranteed for the four years of school. They do not receive long-term health insurance – a particular problem given the risk of concussions among football players.
Most recently, Shabazz Napier, a star player for the NCAA basketball champion University of Connecticut Huskies, said he sometimes went to bed hungry because he couldn’t afford to buy food: “We as students athletes get utilized for what we do so well, and we’re definitely blessed to get a scholarship to our universities. But at the end of the day, that doesn’t cover everything. We do have hungry nights that we don’t have enough money to get food in. Sometimes money is needed. I don’t think you should stretch it out to hundreds of thousands of dollars for playing, because a lot of times guys don’t know how to handle themselves with money.”
A Connecticut state legislator, Matthew Lesser, summed it up perfectly on CNN, saying: “He says he’s going to bed hungry at a time when millions of dollars are being made off of him. It’s obscene. This isn’t a Connecticut problem. This is an NCAA problem, and I want to make sure we’re putting pressure on them to treat athletes well.”
They may not have it quite as bad as the breaker boys. But it’s obscene exploitation, all the same.