The football stadium at my alma mater Fort Lewis College has been, since its construction in 1958, known as the Ray Dennison Memorial Field. I had no idea why it was named that way; the reality is I never even wondered about it until several days ago. I happened to come across, via Facebook, an article in my hometown newspaper the Durango Herald. It explained why the field is named the way it is. But the reason also came a little closer to my industry than I expected.

Ray Dennison Memorial Field is named as the result of a tragic accident that turned out to be an opening salvo in a battle that continues today. A battle that the workers’ compensation industry has been watching periodically with interest.

Ray Dennison was playing right guard for what was then the Fort Lewis A&M Aggies, in a game against Trinidad Junior College on September 24, 1955. He was “defending the opening kickoff return as Fort Lewis commenced Empire Junior Conference play.” As Dennison went for the tackle, the ball carrier’s knee slammed into his helmet. Dennison’s skull was fractured, and the base of his skull was shattered against the top of his spine. He slipped into a coma from which he would not recover. He died 30 hours after the accident. 

According to the Herald, “Dennison, 26, left behind a son, Mike, age 4, and two daughters, Cindy, age 3, and Dianna, 18 months. His widow, Billie Dennison, would soon launch a lawsuit that helped define the NCAA’s relationship with its athletes.”

The case, in fact, saw one of the first uses of a phrase we are now all accustomed to, the “student-athlete.” 

Again, from the Herald:

After Dennison died, his widow, Billie, filed a claim for death benefits with the Colorado Industrial Commission under the Workmen’s Compensation Act. The commission approved the claim, and on appeal, a district court affirmed the decision. 

But Fort Lewis, along with the State Compensation Insurance Fund, fought the case to the Colorado Supreme Court. The court finally ruled in 1957 that Billie was not entitled to death benefits. The justices’ reasoning: Football players are “student athletes” and not college employees. 

“Since the evidence does not disclose any contractual obligation to play football, then the employer-employee relationship does not exist,” the court said.

The court explained that Fort Lewis “was not in the football business.”

“In fact, the state-conducted institution, supported by taxpayers, could not as a matter of business enter into the maintenance of a football team for the purpose of making a profit directly or indirectly out of the taxpayers’ money,” the court said.

To say that Fort Lewis College isn’t in the football business is probably a bit of an understatement. Although the Fort Lewis Raiders, as they were known while I was there, led their conference the year I graduated, it is not known for dominating the sport year after year. Last year the team finished tied for seventh place in the 10-team Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference (the Raiders have since been renamed the Skyhawks, since the Raider name, an homage to the school’s origins on an old Cavalry fort, was apparently offensive to indigenous residents). 

This was an interesting story, as the debate that started with Ray Dennison’s death in 1955 is still carrying on today. Taylor Branch, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian who has written about the evolution of the NCAA, told the Herald in a telephone interview that the Dennison case is “foundational.” He said, “It opened up a protection for the NCAA and all of its member colleges to treat their athletes who are generating a lot of money as volunteers, and not have to worry about someone classifying them as employees.” 

Branch said that Walter Byers, the first executive director of the NCAA, crafted the term “student-athlete” in consultation with the organization’s legal department. Decades later, the term is the NCAA’s first defense against suggestions college athletes should be paid. 

Saying “It has become really almost a mantra,” Branch said the term “student-athlete” is widely used even by the NCAA’s critics. In a recent case involving former college athletes’ rights to revenue from video games and other licensing, San Francisco District Court Chief Judge Claudia Wilken used the term 253 times in a 99-page ruling.

Of course, with college football now worth millions of dollars in revenue to some schools, the questions surrounding athlete protections are getting harder to defend. There is currently an antitrust lawsuit pending against the NCAA, and in a National Labor Relations Board case that is now on appeal, Northwestern football players won the right to form a union.

Branch believes that NCAA sports teams meet any common-sense definition of an employer – in that they set times and places where attendance is required, provide transportation to the job site and equipment to perform the job. He says, “They can’t have their cake and eat it, too, by saying we’re going to commercialize sports and run a multibillion-dollar industry on the backs of our volunteer athletes and claim it’s for their own good.”

How this all turns out is not for us to conjecture. What is a surprise is that the battle has been waged for over 60 years. I attended numerous games at the stadium named for Ray Dennison. I was awarded my degree on that very field. Knowing today the history behind it and the affect it may have on my own industry is probably for me an even bigger surprise. 

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