clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Friendly Reminder: The NCAA Invented The Term "Student-Athlete" To Get Out Of Paying Worker's Comp

Given the NCAA's sordid history, Kain Colter and his fledgling union face an uphill battle getting the NCAA to cover medical expenses.

Matt Marton-USA; TODAY Sports

For a quick reminder on how the term "student-athlete" was created, here's Taylor Branch:

Today, much of the NCAA’s moral authority—indeed much of the justification for its existence—is vested in its claim to protect what it calls the "student-athlete." The term is meant to conjure the nobility of amateurism, and the precedence of scholarship over athletic endeavor. But the origins of the "student-athlete" lie not in a disinterested ideal but in a sophistic formulation designed, as the sports economist Andrew Zimbalist has written, to help the NCAA in its "fight against workmen’s compensation insurance claims for injured football players."

"We crafted the term student-athlete," [NCAA president] Walter Byers himself wrote, "and soon it was embedded in all NCAA rules and interpretations." The term came into play in the 1950s, when the widow of Ray Dennison, who had died from a head injury received while playing football in Colorado for the Fort Lewis A&M Aggies, filed for workmen’s-compensation death benefits. Did his football scholarship make the fatal collision a "work-related" accident? Was he a school employee, like his peers who worked part-time as teaching assistants and bookstore cashiers? Or was he a fluke victim of extracurricular pursuits? Given the hundreds of incapacitating injuries to college athletes each year, the answers to these questions had enormous consequences. The Colorado Supreme Court ultimately agreed with the school’s contention that he was not eligible for benefits, since the college was "not in the football business."

The term student-athlete was deliberately ambiguous. College players were not students at play (which might understate their athletic obligations), nor were they just athletes in college (which might imply they were professionals). That they were high-performance athletes meant they could be forgiven for not meeting the academic standards of their peers; that they were students meant they did not have to be compensated, ever, for anything more than the cost of their studies. Student-athlete became the NCAA’s signature term, repeated constantly in and out of courtrooms.

Using the "student-athlete" defense, colleges have compiled a string of victories in liability cases. On the afternoon of October 26, 1974, the Texas Christian University Horned Frogs were playing the Alabama Crimson Tide in Birmingham, Alabama. Kent Waldrep, a TCU running back, carried the ball on a "Red Right 28" sweep toward the Crimson Tide’s sideline, where he was met by a swarm of tacklers. When Waldrep regained consciousness, Bear Bryant, the storied Crimson Tide coach, was standing over his hospital bed. "It was like talking to God, if you’re a young football player," Waldrep recalled.

Waldrep was paralyzed: he had lost all movement and feeling below his neck. After nine months of paying his medical bills, Texas Christian refused to pay any more, so the Waldrep family coped for years on dwindling charity.

Through the 1990s, from his wheelchair, Waldrep pressed a lawsuit for workers’ compensation...His attorneys haggled with TCU and the state worker-compensation fund over what constituted employment. Clearly, TCU had provided football players with equipment for the job, as a typical employer would—but did the university pay wages, withhold income taxes on his financial aid, or control work conditions and performance? The appeals court finally rejected Waldrep’s claim in June of 2000, ruling that he was not an employee because he had not paid taxes on financial aid that he could have kept even if he quit football. (Waldrep told me school officials "said they recruited me as a student, not an athlete," which he says was absurd.)

The long saga vindicated the power of the NCAA’s "student-athlete" formulation as a shield, and the organization continues to invoke it as both a legalistic defense and a noble ideal.

That final sentence fragment, written in 2011, looks remarkably prescient today, as the NCAA had this to say in response to Kain Colter leading an attempt for players to unionize:

The NCAA responded with a statement from Chief Legal Officer Donald Remy, who said "student-athletes are not employees within any definition of the National Labor Relations Act" and that there is no existing employment relationships between the "NCAA, its affiliated institutions or student-athletes."

"This union-backed attempt to turn student-athletes into employees undermines the purpose of college: an education," Remy said in the statement. "Student-athletes are not employees, and their participation in college sports is voluntary. We stand for all student-athletes, not just those the unions want to professionalize."

Legalistic defense? Check.

Noble ideal? Check.

So far, the strategy of the fledgling union is to start with modest proposals that have strong public support before moving on major proposals like pay-for-play.  In a piece on the main SBNation page today, Patrick Vint makes the astute point that the MLB Player's Assocation used a similar strategy to become the most powerful union in America. It's a great idea, and a great start. Unfortunately, the NCAA is going to fight this every inch of the way, precisely because history tells them that if they give a concession here on injuries, and a concession there on transfers, it's only a matter of time before the floodgates open. As we've seen above, the NCAA has no qualms with the bad PR that comes with going into court and attempting to get out of paying the medical bills of a paralyzed former player; they're clearly willing to take massive PR hits in order to maintain the status quo.

Here's one of the goals of the National College Players Assocation:

Prevent players from being stuck paying sports-related medical expenses.

The NCAA does not require schools to cover sports-related injuries - it's optional.  College athletes injured during sports-related workouts should not have to pay for medical expenses out of their own pockets.

Good luck with that one, Kain. Here's to hoping you succeed where Mrs. Ray Dennison and Kent Waldrep failed.