An Injured Athlete Goes For A Legal Touchdown

Kent Waldrep remembers everything going numb and the world around him shifting into slow motion. On Oct. 26, 1974, Waldrep, a Texas Christian University running back, took a pitch from the quarterback and charged toward the University of Alabama defensive line before 70,000 screaming football fans at Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala. A moment later, after a clean tackle, he fell to the turf and his neck snapped, paralyzing his entire body for life. "It was a feeling of such helplessness," he recalls. "I wanted to move my legs, but they wouldn't budge."

Another devastating blow was yet to come. Eleven months later, TCU, after paying some of his initial hospitalization costs, refused to accept further responsibility for his mounting medical bills. "They used me and discarded me," he says. Now, 18 years later, Waldrep wants to make TCU pay--and set a precedent that could shake the foundation of college sports.

CUT AND DRIED? When he appears before the Texas Workers' Compensation Commission in the next few weeks, Waldrep will argue that as a football player, he was a TCU employee who merited all the rights enjoyed by other workers. Waldrep says the retroactive compensation and lifetime stipend he could win are secondary to giving big-time college sports a stiff dose of reality. "I want to get something on the book saying college athletes are employees, which everyone knows but no one wants to admit," he explains. "The athletes work long hours and generate all that money for the universities, and then when one of them gets hurt, the schools pretend they don't have any responsibility."

To rule in favor of Waldrep's claim, the State of Texas must say he was an employee, a sweeping contradiction of the most fundamental tenet of major college sports. The school itself takes no public position on the case. "It's for the board to decide whether he was an employee or not," say Jill E. Laster, assistant vice-chancellor at TCU. But Royce Ogden, district claims coordinator for Dallas-based Employers Casualty Co., successor to the insurer that covered TCU in the 1970s, maintains the case is cut and dried. "He was a football player, and football players are not employees," Ogden says.

Or are they? For years, players'-rights activists have argued that football and basketball players are high-profile workers who should be paid. Some of the largest university athletic programs generate upwards of $20 million each year from ticket sales, television rights, and bowl game appearances. But according to National Collegiate Athletic Assn. rules, student-athletes may receive only the costs associated with their education--tuition, fees, books, room and board--a pittance compared with the millions a few later make in the pro leagues. "Establishing a precedent that says these athletes are employees would be a good start to a fairer system," says Frank P. Hernandez, Waldrep's lawyer.

Waldrep was able to file his case only because he discovered a loophole that allowed him to press his claim long after his injury. Today, a player in similar circumstances would have a much harder time suing for workers' comp. That's because last year the NCAA instituted a catastrophic-injury health insurance program that covers all varsity athletes. But those injured before 1991 are out of luck, making Waldrep's case loom large. If he wins, the floodgates could be open to all kinds of former athletes who were injured, catastrophically or otherwise.

A LONG SLOG. Catastrophic injuries are rare--in the first year of its new insurance program, the NCAA didn't receive a single claim. But what about that fullback who hurts his shoulder and never fully recovers? If Waldrep's claim stands up, you can bet some enterprising lawyer will sue a university for a client's loss of potential income. "If some kid with a promising future blows out his knee playing for State U. and then doesn't get a shot at the pros, the university owes him compensation," says Hernandez, who has unsuccessfully sued National Football League teams on similar grounds.

Waldrep, who now runs the Dallas-based National Paralysis Foundation, which he founded in 1979, insists he isn't pursuing this case to make a killing. In the first years after his injury, his parents paid for his medical treatment, and in 1978 he started a Dallas aviation-repair business that has left him financially secure. He knows he's now in for a years-long slog through the Texas court system. It's worth it to him, though, to make sure big-time university athletes are recognized for what he says they truly are: big-time revenue producers.

Keith Dunnavant in Dallas

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