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Fort Lewis’ first ‘student-athlete’

Ray Dennison, killed playing football, echoes through NCAA history

Ray Dennison was playing right guard for the Fort Lewis A&M Aggies when they faced off against Trinidad Junior College on Sept. 24, 1955.

Dennison had grown up in Cortez, the son of a logger, before joining the Army. He attended Fort Lewis on the GI Bill. The football coach persuaded Dennison to join the team after providing for an on-campus job to replace his work at a gas station.

A married father of three, Dennison 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 Dennison’s helmet.

The impact fractured the top of Dennison’s skull and shattered the base of his skull against the top of his spine. Dennison was taken by ambulance to the Trinidad hospital, but he soon slipped into a coma from which he would not recover.

His wife was rushed from the old Fort Lewis campus to be at his bedside in Trinidad. Dennison died early on the morning of Sept. 26, 30 hours after the on-field collision.

“Aggie football player dies of game injuries,” the headline blared in the Sept. 26 Durango Herald-News.

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.

That relationship is under fire as never before. In courtrooms and the media, the NCAA faces sharp questions about why players who form the basis of a multibillion-dollar industry are not paid. At the same time, safety issues – particularly mounting evidence that on-field collisions often lead to irreversible, long-term brain damage – are plaguing the game.

As Fort Lewis lines up Saturday at Ray Dennison Memorial Field for the Skyhawks’ home opener against New Mexico Highlands, Dennison’s legacy plays an important and largely unacknowledged role in the national debate, 59 years after his death.

Dennison a ‘student-athlete’

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.

That passage seems quaint in light of modern college football. Top Division I football teams can make more than $100 million in annual revenue, and athletes are the face of many state educational institutions.

Yet despite the vast growth of the college sports industry, the court’s reasoning continues to guide the NCAA’s relationship with its players.

“It is a foundational case,” Taylor Branch, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian who has written about the evolution of the NCAA, said in a telephone interview.

“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.”

Dennison’s case saw an early use of the term “student athletes,” now employed to describe everything from a cross country runner who generates no revenue to a top quarterback like Florida State’s Jameis Winston, who may be worth millions to his school.

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

“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.

NCAA approach questioned

The NCAA’s amateurism model is facing its most serious set of challenges in the organization’s history.

A prominent antitrust lawyer named Jeffrey Kessler has filed a lawsuit that constitutes a frontal assault on the NCAA. In a National Labor Relations Board case that is now on appeal, Northwestern football players won the right to form a union.

Branch argues NCAA sports teams meet any common-sense definition of an employer – they set times and places where attendance is required, provide transportation to the job site and equipment to perform the job.

“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,” Branch said.

Fort Lewis in 1960 dedicated its new football field to Dennison after moving from the college’s original campus in Hesperus to the current location in east Durango.

Fifty-nine years after Dennison’s death, Fort Lewis’ football program remains a fairly obscure outpost of the national sport. The team finished tied for seventh in the 10-team Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference last year. The Skyhawks are 1-2 so far this season.

Earlier this week, the football team practiced ahead of the home opener. Dozens of golden helmets reflected the brilliant sunshine on the Skyhawks’ north practice fields on the campus ringed by brawny mountain peaks. It was the sort of day that makes for recruiting pamphlets.

Wide receiver Andrew Johnson, a senior, said the “student-athlete” label doesn’t bother him.

“It’s nice to have your tuition paid for,” he said. “It sets you up for your future.”

Johnson said being paid for football may not be realistic at FLC. “I don’t know if we’re at a big enough school to worry about not getting paid,” he said.

Branch argues that even Division II athletes should have the right to organize for better working conditions.

He believes the college sports industry will one day look back on amateurism as a decades-long collusion, asking, he said, “How did we get away with it for so long?”

cslothower@durangoherald.com

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