Workers' Compensation and the NCAA's "Student Athlete"

One example of how the NCAA benefits economically from student athletes.

I grew up in Chapel Hill, N.C. and graduated from the University of North Carolina when the concept of big-time football was not an issue. In Chapel Hill the NCAA was known primarily for imposing sanctions on basketball and eliminating the Dixie Classic, a holiday tournament in the early 60’s which brought visiting teams to Raleigh to play UNC and N.C.State. Some folks still remember Oscar Robertson and a powerful Cincinnati team leaving after being defeated in that tournament.

Recently, the history of the NCAA has been explored in The Atlantic (October, 2011) in an article called “The Shame of College Sports” by Taylor Branch (a 1968 graduate of UNC). Interestingly, the role of workers’ compensation was discussed when explaining the need to give the NCAA a more solid foundation.

The Supreme Court of Colorado determined that workers’ compensation should be denied because the college was “not in the football business.”

The NCAA developed the term “student-athlete” 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 workmens’-compensation death benefits.” The Supreme Court of Colorado eventually determined that the claim should be denied because the college was “not in the football business.”

School officials said they recruited him as a student, not an athlete. Waldrep told Branch that was absurd.

In 1974 a Texas Christian running back, Kent Waldrep, was paralyzed after being tackled by several Alabama players at a game in Birmingham. TCU paid his medical bills for nine months and then stopped, and a workers’ compensation claim was eventually filed. This claim was also denied and upheld on appeal. School officials said they recruited him as a student, not an athlete. Waldrep told Branch that was absurd.

According to Branch, the Southeastern Conference (SEC) had over one billion dollars in receipts in 2010 and the Big Ten had $905 million. Most of that money came from television contracts. Would that money have come to those conferences without highly skilled athletes for the football and basketball teams? Are the players quasi-employees of their respective universities? Are they under the control of the university and the NCAA when they sign a contract to play for a university?

An employee is one “…who is engaged in employment under any appointment or contract of hire or apprenticeship, express or implied.”

Under North Carolina workers’ compensation law, an employee is one “…who is engaged in employment under any appointment or contract of hire or apprenticeship, express or implied…” Sounds like a football player might qualify.

The NCAA wants to keep workers’ compensation out of the system. By claiming that these athletes are full-time amateurs, and by convincing the courts that these are students first, athletes second, they keep the myth alive. Just as the Dixie Classic has “gone with the wind” by the action of the NCAA, the failure to take action by the NCAA on this issue may challenge the legitimacy of this organization.

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