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Collegian’s Early Case for Employee Rights Echoes Still

Published on NewsOK Modified: April 22, 2014 at 5:42 pm •  Published: April 22, 2014
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c.2014 New York Times News Service

BELLEVILLE, Ill. — In a drill at a college football practice, Fred W. Rensing charged downfield, lowered his white helmet and drilled the punt returner in the chest for a thunderous hit. Rensing did not get up, and he never walked again.

He spent the next 28 years in relative anonymity, the initial years engaged in a long-shot legal dispute with his university, fighting for injured worker benefits. Today, as a landmark case at Northwestern University challenges the foundation of collegiate athletics, Rensing and the 1976 punt drill that felled him still resonate.

Though he has been largely forgotten by the public, those who have long been pushing for changes in the NCAA see him as an early pioneer in the struggle to win employment rights for campus athletes, which would potentially qualify them for protections like workers’ compensation benefits and unemployment insurance.

Rensing did not win his fight, however. When the courts ultimately ruled against him, the decision gave the NCAA an important legal victory, bolstering its stance that its athletes are not professionals and delivering a precedent that stood opposite to what Rensing had pushed for.

“The Rensing decision provided legal camouflage for the myth that college athletes are amateurs engaged in sports during their free time,” said Allen Sack, a professor at the University of New Haven who advocates NCAA reform. “I was stunned by that ruling and I still am today.”

Nevertheless, Rensing, who died in 2004, “should be pulled back into history,” Sack added. “He was written out of history.”

Rensing’s legal battle bears striking similarities to the one now roiling Northwestern. Whatever the outcome, Rensing’s family and friends see today’s push to change the NCAA as a continuation of his battle.

“It’s about time — a long time coming,” his widow, Babette Rensing, said. “I don’t think he ever thought he’d be around to see it.”

She keeps an old Indiana State football helmet near framed photos of a muscular 20-year-old in her small office here.

She was with Rensing as he waged his legal campaign from his wheelchair, suing Indiana State for workers’ compensation benefits. She was with him in 1982 when a state appeals court ruled in his favor, declaring that as a football player, he should be considered a university employee. (Last month’s decision by a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board about the Northwestern case echoed this argument.)

And she was with him the next year when an Indiana Supreme Court reversed that ruling, declaring that he should not be considered a professional athlete after all.

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The son of a former high school football player, Rensing was an unlikely figure to take on the NCAA.

He was a lifelong football fan who grew up here watching the St. Louis Cardinals football team with his father.

But he spent his final years struggling with medical problems and was largely unemployable: He typed by tapping the keyboard with a piece of cardboard held between his lips.

“As far as I’m concerned, the NCAA just put me in a bag and tied me up and threw me in the river,” Rensing told a reporter in 1997.

Rensing would have been encouraged by the recent NLRB decision that Northwestern football players are university employees.

The university has appealed the decision to the full National Labor Relations Board, which is now deciding whether to hear the case. The Northwestern players will hold a vote Friday on whether to unionize.

At Althoff Catholic High School here, Rensing excelled on the offensive line, and was so dedicated that he lifted weights in an assistant coach’s basement at night. By his senior year, coaches from Indiana State, Tulane and Army were recruiting him.

Rensing chose Indiana State, and had dreams of playing in the NFL.

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In spring practices after his sophomore season, Rensing was competing for a starting spot on the offensive line. Before the final spring practice, on April 24, 1976, his coaches told him that they had seen enough and that he could rest his ailing knee. But Rensing insisted on practicing.

He was injured on the punt drill that morning.

Once the swelling subsided, a fractured dislocation of the cervical spine was diagnosed: He was a quadriplegic.

When he was released from rehabilitation many months later, his parents turned their garage into a wheelchair-accessible bedroom.

He did not return to Indiana State, and the university’s insurance covered only initial expenses. His family’s insurance covered much of the costs, but his father remembered needing to come up with $20,000 early on.

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Indiana State and the Belleville community held fundraisers to help offset the initial costs. Indiana State even hosted a Fred Rensing week, which included a visit from Jim Otis, the Cardinals quarterback.

But Rensing’s parents understood that their son would always need caretakers to dress him, feed him and help him out of bed. And finding a job would be difficult, if not impossible.

“I was worried about my son and his medical bills that were coming in droves,” his father, Fred J. Rensing, said. “I knew he wasn’t going to make a livable salary. He couldn’t use his hands or his legs. That pretty much ties you down.”

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In 1977, Rensing filed a claim for workers’ compensation benefits from the state of Indiana. His lawyers acknowledged in their letters with the Rensings that the case would be a novel one.

The state’s workers’ compensation panel rejected Rensing’s claim, prompting his lawyers to turn to an Indiana appeals court. Rensing appeared in person for the hearing.

“He wanted them to see him — have them look and see that this is it,” Babette Rensing said.

In 1982, the appeals court decided, 2-1, in Rensing’s favor, finding his “scholarship constituted a contract for hire” within the state’s law and that it “created an employer-employee relationship.”

The decision immediately drew fire from college sports officials.

“We don’t like it,” an NCAA lawyer said at the time, questioning if scholarships would soon be taxable and if out-of-work athletes could file for unemployment benefits.

Indiana State, with the backing of the NCAA as well as nearby universities like Indiana, Purdue and Ball State, appealed to the Indiana Supreme Court.

Rensing’s friends were surprised he had taken on such a battle.

“We were young and out of a small town,” said Tim Thomas, his high school teammate and best friend. “You think, ‘Man, that’s pretty bold.’ But it was just something they felt they needed to do.”

The Indiana Supreme Court ruled in 1983 that Rensing “was not considered to be a professional athlete who was being paid for his athletic ability.” The decision noted that the benefits Rensing received from Indiana State were governed by “strict” NCAA rules “designed to protect his amateur status.” The decision would be cited in other cases challenging the NCAA.

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Rensing struggled to find work. He eventually found a low-wage job with a cellphone and paging company that allowed him to work from home, but he spent years unemployed.

He continued to go to the weight lifting club, even if he could not do much there. He managed an adult softball team and coached youth football. And he counseled his adopted son, Gabe, who played college football before his playing career was cut short by concussions.

Rensing even maintained his love for Indiana State, often returning to watch games from his wheelchair. When he died in 2004, he was buried in his Indiana State jersey.