The Cartel (Excerpt)

In this Byliner Original excerpt, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch discusses the origins of the term “student-athlete,” and its subsequent legal effects on college athletes.

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    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 "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 workers' compensation insurance claims for injured football players."

    "We crafted the term student-athlete," 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 workers'-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. Critically, the NCAA position was determined only by its member institutions—the colleges and universities, plus their athletic conferences—as students themselves have never possessed NCAA representation or a vote. Practical interest turned the NCAA vigorously against Dennison, and the Supreme Court of Colorado 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.

    Bryant, stifling emotion, exhorted him to rehab for the next season, but with his crumpled spine, Waldrep remained stashed away among paraplegics never expected to write their names again or urinate without a catheter. After nine months of paying his medical bills, TCU refused further coverage, and the Waldrep family coped for four years on dwindling charity before they tried torturous therapy outside medical protocol. Waldrep recovered slight feeling in his arms through the 1980s and learned to drive a specially rigged van. Sixteen seasons after his catastrophic injury, the White House honored Waldrep's team of legislative catalysts at the signing ceremony for the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

    Throughout the 1990s, from his wheelchair, Waldrep pressed a lawsuit for workers' compensation. Alienated from TCU, he felt paradoxically closer to the team that had crippled him. Alabama players bestowed upon Waldrep an honorary varsity letter, and until his death in 1983, Bear Bryant kept up his solicitous calls and words of encouragement. Waldrep sat with the Bryant family at the coach's funeral, and became a typically crazed Crimson Tide fan, immersed in the rhythmic shift of NCAA scandals between Alabama and its in-state rival, Auburn.


Originally published in Byliner, September 2011

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