Once there was a game that had practically everything. Fun to play and exciting to watch, it was beloved by a nation of sports-minded people. It was held up to the nation's youth as an exemplary physical test and as a builder of character. Outstanding men, including Presidents and Supreme Court Justices, had played it in their youth. Many observers considered it to be the definitive American game.
In time, the sport developed a professional adjunct. It was shown on television and was used to sell automobiles, beer and "pieces of the Rock." As a result, some of the men who played the game were idolized and became rich.
Statistics showed that it was the nation's most injurious team sport, but those who despaired of the weekend casualty lists were encouraged to look at the sport's virtues, at the lives and profit statements it enhanced.
The game became contaminated, but the process was so gradual and insidious that few took notice. From the kiddie leagues to the major colleges and professional league, the sport's public image grew more robust even as it decayed within. The injury rate mounted, sportsmanship declined. Vicious acts became commonplace.
Reform, though obviously needed, was resisted by the sport's custodians. Most of its coaches were too busy trying to stay employed. They were also reluctant to give up "proven" coaching tenets. They said injuries were "part of the game." They were supported in this by the players, who were busy trying to keep their scholarships or make their fortunes. For their part, the sport's administrators were too busy trying to maximize their profits.
Eventually the professional league commissioned a study of injuries. The investigation was supposed to be private, but word of it got around. The study showed that the game's equipment and many of its rules needed to be overhauled to keep pace with the times. Players were bigger, faster and stronger, but the laws of physics were constant: e.g., force=mass X acceleration. Nonetheless, the report was regarded as science fiction by the league. Only minimal changes were made; key recommendations were ignored.
Excess begot excess. Some of the sport's paid stars were glorified for the "macho" way they broke the rules. A psychiatrist wrote firsthand about the amphetamine abuses of one pro team and how the drug contributed to injury. For this he was discredited by the league, which led a move to have his license revoked.
No sin was too great for absolution. College coaches caught cheating one year were named "Coach of the Year" the next. Pro players threatened officials, and each other, with impunity. The sport suddenly found itself crawling with lawyers. Charges ranging from breached contracts to slander were hurled. Players—teen-agers and adults—filed suit, seeking recompense for their broken bodies. Manufacturers of the game's equipment learned they were faced with Judgment Day. The cost of insuring the game against itself soared alarmingly.
And all the while men of goodwill who loved the sport, and were involved in it, grew fearful for its future.
And wondered what would happen next.
And if any good seats were left for the big game.
In 1905, during a football season of unparalleled brutality, President Theodore Roosevelt summoned the leaders of the college game to Washington and demanded that they clean up the sport—change the rules to better protect the players or else. Under such a threat, the rules were quickly and dramatically changed and the game was streamlined. Thus football avoided almost certain self-destruction.
Since a 17-year-old Agoura, Calif. high school football player named Gregory Cole was injured making a head-on tackle and died of a subdural hematoma last November, there has been agitation in that state to make it mandatory that a physician and an ambulance be present at every high school game. On a typical California football weekend there are as many as 1,500 schoolboy games. There are not that many private ambulances in the state.
There are enough doctors, but it is unlikely that a sufficient number would be willing to show up. In many California school districts they are no longer covered by the schools' liability insurance and, haunted by the specter of malpractice suits, they are not eager to get involved. A bill to make them part-time "employees" was vetoed by Governor Jerry Brown last September. It had been opposed by the California School Board Association because of soaring liability insurance costs, which were up by as much as 848% in some districts. Currently a rewritten bill, with much the same intent, is pending in the legislature.
In June, a lawyer for Gregory Cole's family announced he had filed a suit in which 21 defendants were named.
In the last four years liability insurance for elementary schools has gone up 345%, for high schools 320%, for junior colleges 414%. "California's public schools face an insurance crisis that could bankrupt them if it remains unchecked," says Wilson Riles, State Superintendent of Public Instruction.
The question many concerned Californians are asking has ominous national overtones: if the cost of indemnification eliminates sports at those levels, what happens to college programs?
There is an even more ominous question that is closer to the heart of the problem: has football again reached a point where an ambulance and a physician are needed at fieldside every time two teams go out to play?
Before he retired eight years ago, Dr. Eric Walker, the president of Penn State, made a plea in the nature of a prediction to football Coach Joe Paterno, who is widely respected for his honorable approach to the game. Dr. Walker was one of Paterno's champions, and one of football's. But like Paterno, he was not blind to its failings. He said, "Joe, if football doesn't do something about the injuries, soccer will be our national sport in 10 years."
As soccer, a clean and comparatively injury-free sport, grows in popularity in the U.S., Paterno views Walker's foresight, with a growing sense of urgency, as a time bomb ticking. He says he wonders if "enough people realize we have a problem." The injury rate in football cannot be condoned. "It is no longer enough," says Paterno, "to accept it as 'part of the game.' "
Although casualty lists are available in football, no one source ever seems to know exactly how injuries occur or how many there are in a given period for all levels of the game. But indications are that 1977 was a particularly doleful year for the sport James A. Michener calls "the American form of violence" in his exhaustive book, Sports in America. Navy Coach George Welsh complained of "more injuries than any time since I've been here," but did not know why. Dr. Donald Cooper, the team physician at Oklahoma State, went onto the field 13 times in one game, "and that never happened before." Texas, No. 1-ranked at the time, was down to its fourth quarterback by midseason. The Detroit Free Press characterized the Tampa Bay Buccaneers-Detroit Lions game as an excuse for a "Go Blue" cheer—a fight song dedicated to Blue Cross and Blue Shield. With five games left in the season the Buccaneers had lost three quarterbacks. The Lions had had 21 knee operations in three seasons. Asked who on his 80-man Maryland team had not missed a game or a practice because of injury, Coach Jerry Claiborne named only one player.
However, no team could match the devastation that was wrought on the football team of LaPorte (Ind.) High School. By mid-October, the Slicers, as they are unfortunately nicknamed, had suffered four broken backs, four broken legs and numerous torn ligaments and cartilages. Fifteen lettermen had major injuries. Coach Lou Famiano told the Michigan City News-Dispatch he had thought of moving practice to the hospital lawn. At the end of one session, Famiano called for a final play. "I shouldn't have," he says. "Our No. 2 punter broke his leg and our No. 1 center suffered a broken hand." In a junior varsity game, as one Sheer lay on the sidelines, awaiting an ambulance, with a broken leg, another was hit in the chest. His heart stopped. It took electroshock treatment at the hospital to revive him. Famiano says, "My only explanation is the kids have learned bad habits in the early stages of their career, and that's pure speculation."
The upcoming fall renewal of what is often called "hostilities" on sports pages promises no less grim a harvest. Projecting from recent surveys, it is anticipated that the "part of the game" no one likes to talk about will:
•Injure a million high school players at approximately 20,000 schools.
•Injure 70,000 college players at more than 900 schools.
•Inflict a 100% casualty rate (at least one injury for every player) on the National Football League.
In the lexicon of coaches, many of these injuries will be "minor," meaning no game time lost. Others will curtail seasons. A few will end careers. Some will have long-term effects that will grow more painful and restricting with age. Others will be immediately crippling.
Relatively speaking, football is no longer a killer sport and should not be condemned or condoned on that basis. (In 1905, the year Teddy Roosevelt told the game to square itself away, there had been 18 deaths in the college ranks alone.) The issue is not only dead bodies, but also wounded ones—the systematic wasting of men and boys within the boundaries of "legal play." Injuries are endemic to a physical sport, and certain risks are implied. The issue is not the risk of injury, but how much injury is necessary and therefore acceptable.
Apparently a lot.
In a survey for The New York Times Special Features, Dr. James Garrick, then of the University of Washington Sports Medicine Department, said, "If the United States ignored an annual epidemic striking a million and a half youngsters each autumn, Americans would revolt. Yet they cheered while that many college, high school. Pop Warner and sandlot players were injured." Dr. Garrick put the more celebrated Sunday carnage of the pros in perspective. "More high school kids get injured every Friday night than pros do in a year."
That Times survey was made in 1975. Football turned a deaf ear. Since then, the few rules changes that have been made, though for the good in some cases, have not been applied throughout the sport and have made no appreciable impact on its perils. The game has not been turned around. No Teddy Roosevelts have risen up to protest the slaughter.
Some lawyers have, however. Lawyers are doing something about football injuries. They are filing suits.
The legal profession has found that suing football may result in highly lucrative judgments in several areas, but as of now suits involving the use—or misuse—of the modern hard-shell football helmet, a device Dr. Cooper calls "the damndest, meanest tool on the face of the earth," are the most profitable. There is no better way to epitomize the myriad threats to football than to examine the helmet. It is:
•A focal point of coaches' intransigence in teaching dangerous techniques.
•The piece of equipment with which players are most likely to cause the most serious injuries—head and neck injuries are responsible for 80% of the game's fatalities.
•The wedge that has opened the sport to the current boom in negligence suits. "We used to have ambulance chasers before no-fault [auto insurance]," says Dr. Cooper. "Now we've got jock chasers. If coaches don't wake up, the lawyers will eat 'em alive."
Cooper is a onetime 5'1", 105-pound water boy who professes a 35-year love for football that is not diminished by his outspoken desire to straighten it out. As medical consultant to the NCAA Rules Committee for six years (1969-75), he was credited with leading the charge that got college coaches to adopt three important safety measures: prohibiting the "crackback" block (the legal clip at the line of scrimmage), making mouthpieces mandatory and outlawing below-the-waist blocking on kicks. (The NFL did not get around to legislating against the crackback until two years after the colleges and has not yet taken action on either of the other proposals. As we shall see, safety is not first in the NFL.)
On the day in 1976 that Cooper railed against the misuse of helmets in a story appearing in the Topeka State Journal, another article in the same paper told of a lawsuit brought by Mrs. Ruth Hayes of San Diego against Riddell, Inc. of Chicago for "unspecified damages equal to one-fourth the total assets of Riddell." Riddell is the nation's largest helmet manufacturer. Mrs. Hayes' 17-year-old son Kip had been paralyzed from the neck down playing football. Mrs. Hayes' lawyer blamed the helmet for Kip's incapacitation.
Six months later, in May of 1977, and a year and a half after his lawyers won a record Dade County (Fla.) judgment of $5.3 million against Riddell, 21-year-old Greg Stead settled out of court for a reported $3 million. The Miami Herald reported Stead's lawyers got $1 million of that.
Stead was in a wheelchair, a quadriplegic since the night in 1971 when the face guard of his helmet struck the knee of an opposing high school ballcarrier and sent the back edge of his helmet crashing down on his upper spine. Stead's lawyers charged Riddell with producing a "negligently designed" helmet.
The suit's success apparently was inspirational. In Dade County itself two other suits nearly identical to Stead's were filed, one for $5 million against Medalist Gladiator Athletic, Inc. of Leesburg, Fla. on behalf of Leroy (Butch) Jenkins, who was paralyzed in December 1975 while playing in a sandlot game in Miami, and the other against Riddell and a sporting-goods store on behalf of a high schooler named George Cunningham.
Nationwide, helmet manufacturers now face between $116 million and $150 million in negligence suits. At a minimum, the suits represent five times the annual gross of the industry ($24 million) and 100 times its annual profit. They have caused grave concern. At the time of Stead's suit there were 14 helmet manufacturers in the country. There are now eight.
Frank Gordon, the president of Riddell, says his company "will stick it out to the end," but it is "a safe bet others will not." Riddell, for example, paid $40,000 for liability insurance in 1975. This year it anticipates premiums of $1.5 million. Some of the independent manufacturers are playing a kind of fiscal Russian roulette: they can't afford to lose a lawsuit and they can't afford the insurance, so they cancel the latter and pray about the former. The larger equipment manufacturers are owned by conglomerates (Riddell by Wynns International, Rawlings by A-T-O, Wilson by PepsiCo), but the conglomerates will not continue to throw good money after bad forever. For the time being, the manufacturers are passing some of the increased insurance costs on to buyers; they are also contemplating forming their own insurance companies.
The immediate dilemma is twofold:
1) Can a parent company, with much to lose, justify a potential catastrophe by a subsidiary whose profits are chicken feed in the corporate picture?
2) Can football be played without helmets?
In respect to the latter, Coach Pop Warner of the Carlisle Indians argued in 1912 that playing without helmets "gives players more confidence, saves their heads from any hard jolts and keeps their ears from becoming torn or sore." But the helmets Warner was referring to were little more than leather pancakes, flapping down over the ears. The modern hard-shell helmet, introduced as a safety breakthrough at the All-Star Game in 1939, had a subtle but far-reaching psychological effect on play. "Courage was a lot easier to come by," says Davey Nelson, University of Delaware athletic director, who is also secretary-editor of the NCAA Rules Committee. "Before [hard-shell helmets], you had to slip blows like a boxer slips punches. You blocked with your shoulder, you tackled with your shoulder. You didn't put your head in places they do now."
Soon enough after its introduction, coaches learned something else about the hard-shell helmet: it was an effective weapon. Techniques known as butt-blocking and butt-tackling became prevalent. Players rammed headfirst into pileups, into defenders, into hapless quarterbacks and into immobile running backs to put the finishing touch on tackles. The helmet became the game's principal instrument of intimidation, and terms like "spearing," "spiking" and "sticking" became part of the argot.
Today, plastered with decals like a World War II fighter plane, the helmet is a stylish-looking engineering marvel: a three-pounds-plus artillery piece of polycarbonate, styrene and leather, honeycombed with pods of rubber, water, antifreeze or foam and costing up to $100. Doug Dickey, the University of Florida coach who played when a helmet was little more than a plastic shell suspended on one's head by a few elastic straps, picked one up recently and was "astounded how heavy it was. It was like lifting a bowling ball."
A helmet has the effect of a bowling ball on impact, says Dr. Cooper. "If a kid isn't seriously hurt by it in a game Saturday, on Sunday he has so many bruises he looks like he's been tattooed with a ball peen hammer. There's nothing wrong with the helmet itself. Doing what it was intended to do—protecting the head—it performs adequately. We seldom see a fractured cheek or skull anymore. What's wrong is the way it is used. Everything that has to do with a meaningful existence runs through that four-inch segment of your body [the neck]. Do like the coaches tell you—jam that helmet or face guard into something, force that helmet back—and it's worse than a karate chop. The head was not meant to be a battering ram."
But batter it does. The Physician and Sportsmedicine journal, citing figures supplied by the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, projected that 40,000 interscholastic football players were treated in emergency rooms two years ago for injuries involving the head and neck. The Stanford Research Institute study commissioned by the NFL showed that over a six-year span 9.4% of all injuries were caused by helmet blows. Neither of these studies takes into account the severity of the injury. A far more revealing figure was obtained after a five-year study of college players by Dr. Carl Blyth at the University of North Carolina. He found that 29% of football's most serious injuries—brain and spinal-cord damage, broken ribs, ruptured spleens, bruised kidneys—came as a direct result of external blows by hard-shell helmets.
Not all the damage makes headlines or brings eye-popping courtroom judgments. Some of it can be insidious. A two-year study made at the University of Iowa revealed that 32% of all incoming freshman football players had hitherto undetected neck injuries. Moreover, the report said that without X-ray examination the majority of the impairments would have continued undetected. One doctor says some players he treats have "cervical spines that look like those of arthritic 90-year-olds." Dr. Butch Mulhern of the University of Gerogia says that 30% of the injuries he sees are directly related to helmet blows. "You see older athletes now with chronic pinched nerves and degenerative arthritis that we never had when I played at Georgia [in the '50s] when the technique was to slide your head past and put a shoulder into it," he says. "It'll be worse for them later on. Maybe not surgery or paralysis, but a gradual incapacitation."
There is no question in Dr. Cooper's mind where the blame belongs. "The whole concept of coaching today is 'punish the opposition,' " he says. " 'Punish 'em.' That's what they all talk about. A kid becomes a good college player and the pros want to know, 'Will he run through a brick wall?' Sportscasters talk about playing with 'complete abandon.' The coach says, 'Wipe out the quarterback.' The crowd yells, 'Defense! Defense!' Everybody goes bananas. Then when they wind up with injured players they say, 'Too bad.'
One Saturday stands out in Dr. Cooper's memory for its impact on the Big Eight Conference: the star Kansas quarterback, hit by a helmet, had to have knee surgery; the star Oklahoma cornerback, hit by a helmet, had to have shoulder surgery; the star Oklahoma State fullback, hit by a helmet, had to have his left leg put in a cast. Dr. Cooper did the work on the last. He recalls that the year before, the same fullback had his right leg fractured by a helmet.
Colorado Assistant Coach Ron Corradini called the helmet "the worst advancement in football." Last fall a collision with Nebraska Running Back I. M. Hipp put Colorado Linebacker Tom Perry on an Omaha operating table for five hours. The result of the impact was not instantaneous. Perry collapsed in the locker room with a cerebral hemorrhage. To save him, doctors had to drill a hole five-eighths of an inch in diameter in his skull and evacuate blood clots.
In Dallas, Washington Redskin Back Bob Brunet, blocking on a running play, smacked headfirst into the knee of a Cowboy defender and was knocked out. The spinal cord compressed as the neck tried to "climb" into his helmet. Brunet had a postgame numbness and tingling pains. It was first feared he had suffered a cervical fracture, but the injury was later diagnosed as a bad bruise and swelling on the spinal cord.
Both Perry and Brunet survived, but with their football futures in doubt.
There is no future for Ricky Luciano of Fulton, N.Y.
Luciano "may have been struck solidly in the chest by an opponent's helmet during a kickoff' in a game last October according to accounts in the Syracuse Herald-Journal. He played until the final quarter when, short of breath, he asked to be taken from the game. A coach was driving him to a hospital, but on the way Luciano decided to go home instead. Later that night, Luciano complained of "chest pains" and was rushed to Lee Memorial Hospital in an ambulance. He died shortly after midnight in the emergency room. The county medical examiner called it "accidental trauma" due to "chest injury."
Players learn dangerous techniques like butt-blocking and butt-tackling in the littlest of leagues, where coaches imitate things they have seen or been taught at higher levels. Collegians imitate pros, high schoolers imitate collegians. The added peril for the younger player, says Dr. Cooper, is that he has not had time to develop the powerful neck muscles post-teens have. "The heads of some of those skinny kids are no more than knobs on the end of a whip," he says. "They ram that helmet in there, and it makes you cringe."
Once having become expert in using the helmet as a weapon, even the brightest of players defend it as the "right way." Dick Anderson, the retired Miami Dolphin All-Pro safety and former president of the NFL Players Association, says you would "spoil the game" if you tried to eliminate helmet-first techniques. "You need to tackle with the helmet sometimes," he says. "Injuries are the risk you take." After being sidelined last year, Texas Tech Quarterback Rodney Allison said he "didn't think it was possible for a defensive player not to use his helmet."
But once you have given a player a loaded gun, there is no guarantee what he will do with it. Texas Coach Fred Akers cites, as one of the perversions of helmet use, a growing practice known as earholing, in which a player aims the top of his helmet at another player's ear, with predictable results. Dr. Cooper recalls an Oklahoma State coach who taught rake-blocking (see cover), in which the blocker rams the chest of his opponent and then comes up violently, raking his face mask into the opposing player's chin. The rake block is now a popular technique on the West Coast.
Two graphic accounts of the joys of helmet abuse are provided in the "tell all" books written a few years back by maverick pro players Bernie Parrish and Dave Meggyesy.
Meggyesy, former St. Louis Cardinal linebacker, describing a technique he says he developed while at Syracuse University under the tutelage of All-Pro Center Jim Ringo, recounts that "I'd fire off the ball and stick my opponent under the chin, straightening him up and neutralizing his initial charge. Then I'd let him start to go around me...and just as he got close to the quarterback, I'd spear him in the legs just above the knees with' my helmet.... Only problem with spear-blocking was that I got kicked in the head a lot.... I'd be pretty dingy by the end of the game, and by my senior year I was throwing up after every game."
Parrish, a onetime Brown defensive back, writes the following of a confrontation with the Steelers' Mike Sandusky: "Mike was set on revenge for my cleating him in the groin the play before.... [He] never broke stride. He drove his helmet into the right side of my unprotected rib cage and knocked me six yards in the air...the hardest lick I ever took, the first time I was laid out on a pro football field.... No official dropped a flag. I heard the Pittsburgh crowd let out a cheer as I hit the ground.... That night, around 3 a.m., I rushed to the bathroom with fierce stomach pains. I threw up a solid whitish ball of food the size of a grapefruit.... I was deathly afraid I was going to strangle."
The cancerous effect of such tactics apparently dawns slowly on the men in charge. After surveying his squad of outpatients last season, then-Washington Redskin Coach George Allen said, "Coaches are not the reason for injuries. Football is great the way it is. Too many rules changes haven't worked before." While leading Notre Dame to a 95-17-14 record in 11 seasons, Ara Parseghian was one of the few coaches to crusade against the head-on tackling and blocking techniques that had become popular in the '50s. "I'd go to clinics," Parseghian recalls, "and hear coaches say, 'You block with your helmet. You tackle with your helmet.' I'd say, 'No way! You block with your shoulder. It's a lot stronger blow, and you don't risk nearly as much. Why be stupid?'
"I had one assistant coach I finally had to threaten to fire. He wouldn't stop teaching our kids to use that damn helmet. You get different philosophies in coaching, usually depending on what position the coach himself played. You get some defensive guys who want to kill the other guy. That's the way they did it. That's the way they thought it ought to be done. It's tough to turn them around."
In 1970 the colleges outlawed spearing, which was defined as "the deliberate and malicious use of the head and helmet in an attempt to punish a runner after his momentum has been stopped." Later the prohibition was broadened to include any deliberate use of the helmet to punish an opponent, whether he had been stopped or not, and to make illegal "striking a runner with the crown or top of the helmet." The rule is only sporadically enforced. And face-to-numbers blocking and tackling (the front of the helmet or the face guard making initial contact) is still legal, and it is estimated that eight out of 10 coaches teach it. The pros have no rule specifically intended to prevent spearing. Art McNally, the NFL's supervisor of officials, says, "Spearing has never been a problem in the NFL."
The evidence does not support him. Nor does it support the contention that spearing and other forms of helmet-hitting, legal or not, have abated at any level. Parseghian says he watches the pros on television and sees "some of the most vicious helmet hits ever. This kid [Doug] Plank of the Bears? His head really does come flying in there with 'reckless abandon.' It's awful. When Terry Bradshaw got blindsided by Gerald Irons, I thought he was cut in half." Russ Francis, the All-Pro New England tight end, had three ribs broken when he was spiked in the side by Buffalo Defensive Back Steve Freeman last year. Francis admitted, "It wasn't illegal, but you don't do that to somebody's ribs."
Nor has the colleges' fine-line definition of what is and what isn't legal stopped spearing. "It's more prevalent than ever," says SMU Defensive Coordinator Steve Sidwell. "You see it all the time," says Paterno. "You just don't see it called. What is worse, you see it as the third and fourth hits on a player." Watching last year's Liberty Bowl, Dr. Cooper was outraged. "Early in the game, a player digs his helmet right in the kidneys of a Nebraska runner," he says. "No flag. Two minutes before it's over, a North Carolina player is flat on his back when this Nebraska guy comes and just spikes him. Again, no flag. They should have thrown 'em both out of the game. When players play like a bunch of billy goats, it's because they're taught to play that way."
Herman Rohrig, supervisor of the Big Ten officials, annually puts together a film to educate coaches and officials about what is going on in the game today. It is a horror show of flying elbows and slashing forearms. Time after time a helmet can be seen making hard first contact—spearing, butting. "Coaches say, 'We don't have a problem,' " Rohrig says, "We say, 'Oh yeah? Look at this.' "
Gene Calhoun is considered to be one of Rohrig's top referees. An ex-high school football player and a former baseball coach at Wisconsin, he has officiated in the Big Ten for 15 years. He is also a Madison, Wis. attorney. Calhoun says that if somebody doesn't stop coaches from teaching helmet-first tackling and blocking, the courts are going to step in and start making football rules. And then, he says, coaches may find themselves side-by-side at the bar with the helmet manufacturers.
Says Calhoun, "The thing that is extremely critical is this: Why was the NCAA formed? Roosevelt said, 'Clean up football or abolish it.' What was happening then is happening now. Boys are getting hurt unnecessarily. No. 1 for all of us is the safety of the players. The men on the Rules Committee are intelligent, honorable men who have the best interest of the players at heart. But changing the rules is not enough, and our calling more penalties is not enough if the coaches don't change their habits. It has to be a cooperative venture, and there's more at stake than coaches realize.
"When people get hurt, a chain of liability could very well be triggered to involve everybody—the players, the coaches, the officials, the schools, the conferences—even the NCAA itself. If they haven't done everything expected of reasonable people to prevent the type of injury that makes an individual a quadriplegic, they are all going to find themselves on the hook.
"You don't think it can happen? A high school coach in Thornburg, Iowa was named, along with a school district and a sporting-goods store, in a $2 million suit. A Milton College [Wis.] player whose neck was injured in a head-on tackle named the school and its insurance company in a $3.1 million suit. The kid's lawyers proceeded on the theory that the boy was not coached in the dangers of this type of tackling. In fact, he might have been taught otherwise—stick that head in there, make contact."
Can the helmet be defused? Moreover, can it be defused in time?
Predictably, with so many special interests involved, there is no general agreement. Even what would seem to be the most obvious first step has consistently met resistance: the recommendation, made as early as 1972 by the American Medical Association, that helmets be padded with a "soft outer covering." Today's helmets are so hard that Maryland Quarterback Mark Manges broke his hand on one last year just following through on a forward pass.
Paterno has long advocated padded helmets but does not get much support from his colleagues. Coaches resist, says Dr. Cooper, "because a padded helmet doesn't give 'em that big whack when somebody gets hit. It's the same reason they don't like padded shoulder pads. Coaches want to hear noise. They love noise. Equipment makers know that coaches, not physicians, buy helmets.
"Most coaches today never played in the helmet that is being used. They don't realize. Cornell used padded helmets for 20 years. Teams were thrilled to play Cornell. Head and neck injuries were reduced, and when they went home they weren't all black and blue. Cornell would still be using 'em, but MacGregor [the manufacturer] quit making 'em. MacGregor's lawyers told 'em to get the hell out of the helmet business because it'll burn your tail. They sold the molds to Bill Kelley [president of a firm in Grand Prairie, Texas] and Kelley still makes 'em for Gene Upshaw and two or three other pros. They won't play without 'em.
"Coaches say padded helmets are dangerous because the padding increases torque stress. They say it causes pinched nerves. Baloney. If that was all there was to it, they could coat the padding with Teflon. The coaches wanted their noise back." Well, maybe not all the time. Oklahoma, for instance, practices in padded helmets but changes to hard-shell helmets for games.
Former Cornell team physician Dr. Alexius Rachun confirms that at Cornell there was "no increase in the number of pinched nerves" because of padded helmets. The Stanford Research report on NFL injuries found other "reasons" had been given by the manufacturers for not padding helmets: teams objected that manufacturers "couldn't paint the team logos on soft helmets" and were afraid of "increased equipment costs." Also—the most unconscionable rationale of all—teams "did not wish to protect members of the opposition unless their [own] were also protected." Any excuse, says Dr. Rachun, "is a terrible injustice to the player. These tough football coaches just feel the only way to play the game is to beat the hell out of the opponent."
Recently manufacturers have pushed to have face guards removed from the helmets, having been burned in the courts by the argument that the guard acts as a lever which drives the helmet down on the spinal cord. Dr. Richard Schneider, head of neurosurgery at the University of Michigan, who studied the case histories of 225 helmet injuries (66 deaths) in high school, college, pro, semi-pro and sandlot games, concluded that the guard did indeed act in such a manner, and recommended its removal. Dr. Schneider said it would be better "to lose a few teeth than to sustain a severe head or neck injury."
Slicing across all these arguments, however, is an inescapable overall conclusion: the helmet is being used as a device to injure football players. What difference does it make which portion of it is more lethal if such use is allowed?
"What appears to be going on here," says The Physician and Sportsmedicine, "is a game of semantics, in which coaches and rule makers are saying that the only danger to the head and neck is when the top of the helmet makes initial contact, and physicians and other concerned persons, including a minority of coaches, are replying that it makes little difference whether it is the face guard, side or top of the helmet that makes the initial and forcible contact."
Two years ago the National Federation of State High School Associations ruled that no helmet blow, from any position, could be the first contact in blocking and tackling. Doug Dickey thinks it a rule worth looking into for colleges, at least as it would apply to defensive players. He sees it as a possible means to stop players from burrowing into falling ballcarriers, requiring them to at least look where they are going. Some concerned coaches, like Paterno, think the rule might be unrealistic because the head "tends to fly around and get in the way anyway." Dr. William Clancy of the University of Wisconsin Sports Medicine Clinic argues that because of that rule he has treated an unusual number of "stingers"—caused by the transitory stretching of the nerve running from the neck down the arm during a shoulder tackle—which, in extreme examples, can result in partial paralysis.
But even when paralysis occurs, a stinger is not a permanent injury. All 24 cases Dr. Clancy treated were fully recovered within six months. The high schools' experiment may still be open to judgment, but results are encouraging: the high school federation reports that deaths and catastrophic head and neck injuries were at a 25-year low in 1977.
Despite this encouraging statistic, no move was made in recent NFL and NCAA Rules Committee meetings to follow the high schools' example.
Rules of sport are not graven in stone. They are changed frequently, and there is precedent for changing them expressly to make football a safer game. Colleges usually lead in these reforms, with the pros' fear of a commercial-image failure making them lag behind. In any case, says Paterno, "we have an obligation to try things, even if we don't agree that they're the final answers."
On that basis, it would seem logical to try these across the board, from the sandlots to the pros:
•Make all deliberate initial-contact helmet hits, by any part of the helmet, illegal. "Deliberate" would allow for strays and be a judgment call officials could make, says Gene Calhoun.
•Pad the outside of helmets and shoulder pads.
•Remove face masks or, at least, produce a study verifying their safety.
•Make mouthpieces mandatory at all levels of the game.
•Make all deliberate hits above the shoulders illegal.
•Make any flagrant foul involving the head punishable by immediate ejection of the offending player.
•Spot-check practices to see that coaches are not teaching or condoning dangerous techniques.
Would such changes mar football's attractiveness or make it more difficult to coach? No more than rules against clipping, flying tackles, hurdling and turtle-back formations did. Most rules concerning players' safety are first pushed by physicians, not coaches.
Coaches will always resist change, says Dr. Cooper, and doctors do not vote on rules changes. As a consultant to the NCAA Rules Committee, he has found that when doctors come around, coaches get the whim-whams. "As long as I talked strictly about injuries, they didn't mind," Dr. Cooper says, "but when I started talking about preventing injuries, they called it 'meddling.' In essence, they said, 'Why the hell don't you stick to practicing medicine and quit trying to act like a damn coach?'
"Some coaches resisted the mouthpiece legislation to the bitter end. They said their quarterbacks couldn't call signals through them. After three or four years of coming back from the meetings frustrated, I got my dentist to custom-fit a mouthpiece. The next year I gave a 30-minute report with the mouthpiece in. Nobody noticed. I said, 'Did everybody understand me?' and I pulled out the mouthpiece. They turned around and voted it in. Our dental bills have dropped to practically nothing."
This season helmets used at the college level must meet standards laid down by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment, a group made up of sporting-goods manufacturers, the NCAA, junior colleges and trainers. The standards are an attempt to unify against faulty manufacturing practices and would seem a step in the right direction. But Trial magazine, the monthly journal of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, has already called the NOCSAE standards "dismally inadequate" and "low-level." "A sure harbinger of litigation to come," says Calhoun. "The lawyers smell blood."
In fact, the issue of Trial in which the helmet critique appeared was devoted entirely to sports litigation. Various bases for lawsuits and how to prepare them were presented. Cases were made against the helmets and the use of synthetic turf. Trial said that if "coaches are willing to buy inferior helmets, then industry stands willing to participate [for profit] in the crippling of our youth." It recommended that substandard helmets be banned, that coaches who teach helmet-first techniques be fired and that parents be apprised of the risk with consent forms.
Finding the battle lines drawn, equipment manufacturers have pushed for a bill in Congress to provide liability-judgment limitation. Says Howard Bruns, president of the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, "The sporting-goods industry itself is under attack. The question is, will football survive?"
"It won't," says Dr. Cooper, echoing a prediction Joe Paterno once heard. "If we don't do something, everybody will be playing soccer."
No, not everybody.
Robert Francis Mudd Jr. will not be playing soccer.
He has been paralyzed since making a tackle in a Stockton, Calif. high school scrimmage seven years ago. A $3 million suit was filed on Mudd's behalf by attorneys, one of whom was former San Diego Charger All-Pro Tackle Ron Mix. The suit alleged that the face-to-numbers technique taught at Lincoln High was inherently unsafe and that coaches and schools were negligent in permitting it.
The trial set a San Joaquin County record for civil jury trials by taking four months to complete.
He has, his parents believe, also lost in life. "You wonder what kind of life he's going to have," says his mother. "Will he meet someone? Will he be able to get married? It's just a catastrophe, there is no other way to put it."
Says the boy, now 21, "You get bored. You don't have any friends. There's really very little you can do."
Football is a he-man's game. So no player should get special handling. But some do. Last year 20 NFL quarterbacks had incapacitating injuries.
"If the United States ignored an annual epidemic striking a million and a half youngsters each autumn, Americans would revolt."
Dr. James Garrick
Sports medicine specialist
"The modern, hard-shell football helmet is the damndest, meanest tool on the face of the earth."
Dr. Donald Cooper
Team physician, Oklahoma State University
"Changing the rules is not enough, and our calling more penalties is not enough if the coaches don't change their habits."
Attorney and Big Ten official
"Coaches are not the reason for injuries. Football is great the way it is."
Coach, Los Angeles Rams