The National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) got some more bad press for its treatment of student-athletes this week, when basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar denounced the organization’s labor practices in an article for the socialist magazine Jacobin.
In his online essay published Wednesday, Abdul-Jabbar — widely considered one of the greatest NBA players of all time — argued that college athletes labor under conditions equivalent to “indentured servitude,” generating enormous profits for universities and the NCAA while receiving little for themselves.
The NCAA is currently engaged in disputes on several fronts over its treatment of student-athletes. Earlier this year the association agreed to pay a $20 million settlement to a group of college football and basketball players whose likenesses had been used in officially licensed video games without the players themselves being compensated. Not long afterward, the NCAA paid out another settlement — this one for $70 million — to current and former college football players who had wanted to be tested for concussions.
At the same time, the NCAA has been forced to contend with a challenge brought before the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in February. That’s when college football players at Northwestern University petitioned the labor board for the right to form a union. Although the players’ NLRB petition identifies Northwestern University as their employer — meaning the NCAA is not, legally speaking, party to the case — the association has nonetheless fought the unionization effort. The NCAA maintains that student-athletes are not employees, and are therefore not covered by the unionization rights spelled out under the National Labor Relations Act.
Abdul-Jabbar offered his qualified endorsement to unionization in his Jacobin article.
“Without the power of collective bargaining, student-athletes will have no leverage in negotiating for fair treatment,” he wrote. “History has proven that management will not be motivated to do the right thing just because it’s right. Unions aren’t all perfect, but they have done more to bring about equal opportunities and break down class barriers than any other institution.”
The legal status of the Northwestern football players — whether they are employees of the university or “student-athletes” with no right to form a union — remains in flux. In March, one of the NLRB’s regional directors ruled in favor of the players, but Northwest University has since appealed to the national board in Washington, D.C., which has yet to issue a verdict. Meanwhile, former student-athlete Samantha Sackos has launched another lawsuit against both the NCAA and several universities, arguing that she and other athletes are owed back pay under the Fair Labor Standards Act.
Abdul-Jabbar has been an outspoken opponent of NCAA labor practices in the past. In July, he penned an op-ed for TIME arguing in favor of unions for college athletes. In both essays, he drew on his own experience as an upaid college athlete.
“When I was a young, handsome player at UCLA, with a full head of hair and a pocket full of nothing, I sometimes had a friend scalp my game tickets so I could have a little spending money,” he wrote in his TIME op-ed.