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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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