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?'