Student athletes

by Dan Ford

Ever wonder about the term “Student Athlete”? It is such a part of our sports language that we hardly stop to consider its origin.


Ray Dennison – Sept, 1955, Image credit: Courtesy of the Center of SW Studies, Ft. Lewis College

On September 24, 1955 Ray Dennison was playing in a junior college football game in Trinidad, Colorado. He was on the kickoff team for Ft. Lewis College. Ray was no kid. He grew up in Cortez, Colorado, served in the military, and was married with three kids. He had worked at a gas station until the school gave him a scholarship. Along with the GI bill he seemed set for a good education and a future.

But then Ray Dennison took a knee to the head on a kickoff against Trinidad Junior College on that fateful September afternoon. It cracked his skull and injured his spine. He lapsed into a coma and died in a Trinidad hospital 30 hours later.

Dennison’s widow, Billie, filed for workman’s compensation benefits, basically claiming that her husband was an employee of the college. Benefits were approved by authorities until it came to the insurance company itself. The resulting decision created the term “student athlete”.

Walter Byers, the first Executive Secretary of the NCAA (1951-88) is credited with creating the term, specifically relating to the 1955 incident. The legal argument was that athletes are not employees of the college but are rather students who play athletics. Being on scholarship does not change that, according to Byers.

The judge concurred that the college was not in the football business. The athlete does not have a contractual obligation and therefore no employer-employee relationship exists. Billie Dennison would get no insurance benefits for herself and Ray’s three children. To this date the term “Student Athlete” is used legally by institutions of higher learning in their continuing argument that the athletes should not be compensated for their services.

Ft. Lewis College created a new campus a few years later and became a four-year school in the early 1960s. They play in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference, a Division II league. And they play on a field named Ray Dennison Memorial Stadium. There’s a good chance that you now know more than the Ft. Lewis students about the man for whom their stadium is named.


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