Ideally, you should be able to play any game without referees or umpires. Players of sport should also be sportsmen. Officials of sport should make rulings, not serve as cops keeping athletes from maiming each other.
But that is exactly what is happening in football. It is naive and dangerous to think otherwise. Certain practices of coaching and play have evolved that have increased the likelihood of injury. And the higher the level of play, the more brutal the practices. Yet football has not yet become Rollerball. Skill, not mayhem, is still its primary attraction.
But the game has changed. Skill and technique and teamwork have lost ground to intimidation and wanton aggression; ruthless play within the rules has led to unconscionable acts that have contributed to an injury rate that is now unacceptable—and to increasing litigation by an increasingly litigious society. Football has become a game in which rule-maneuvering is so much a way of life that the men who coach it, and the men who play it, are often indifferent to the game's aberrations.
"The basic problem of football today," says Davey Nelson, the University of Delaware athletic director and secretary-editor of the NCAA Rules Committee, "is not to see if you can win within the rules, but to see how much you can get away with to help win."
The process by which permissible aggression becomes mayhem is not difficult to trace. Sometimes it can be found simply by listening to the young men who play the game:
Dean Payne is a linebacker at Northwestern. He is a sophomore from Chester, Pa. Says Payne, "All the coaches stress gang tackling. You're taught to be there at the ball—once you're there, you're not supposed to stare at it. You're supposed to pile on. It becomes a really violent state of mind—you really get fired up and motivated to get someone. Everyone accepts things like late hits as part of the game."
The college player advances into the pros, where his aggression is marketable and becomes a springboard to affluence. Jean Fugett, from Amherst, now is a tight end for the Washington Redskins.
"I never understood the real violence of the game until I played pro ball," Fugett told Charley McKenna of The Milwaukee Sentinel. "I had to work very hard to be aggressive. I used to have to start making up stuff like, 'This guy raped my mother' to get physical enough to really hit him.... Intimidation is the biggest part of the game. You can't let anyone get away with anything because everything you do is on film. If you let yourself be intimidated, the team you play next week will see it on the films and may try the same thing."
Fugett said that when he played for the Dallas Cowboys he tried to avoid brute force, to make blocks with finesse. He said his style did not sit well with Assistant Coach Mike Ditka, a former All-Pro tight end.
"Ditka was always saying I wasn't aggressive enough. Do you want to know how Ditka taught us how to block in Dallas? He told us to fire out and hit [the opponent] in the chest with our helmets, then bring both arms up like this and hit [him] with both fists [in the groin]. Now I just couldn't do that, and I didn't. But if a guy does that to me, it's different.... This is one job where you can come to work every day and really take out your frustrations."
When he gets really good at it, the pro player becomes the consummate aggressor. He becomes Doug Plank, a defensive back for the Chicago Bears. Plank thinks of himself as "an excellent example of a player who plays within the rules...the way I'm taught." Not everybody agrees with Plank's self-evaluation.
Plank says, "The only specialty teams I play on are the kickoff returns and, every now and then, a punt return. I don't want a team to be able to send two or three guys after me. My reputation got to be a problem. My coaches understand, so it wasn't hard to get them to pull me off [other specialty teams]. They joked about it. 'Yeah, if we put you out there, they'll stick all 11 guys on you.'
"Opposing players complain about my hits. They complain to me. But I don't really feel I'm at fault if there is no penalty called.
"[Last year] there was a wide receiver who'd been trying to come down on me all day, throwing [himself] around my legs. There was one play in particular—a play that was almost over, and that I had had no part in—where he went out of his way to go for me. I started to think, 'I wonder how he would like it if I started throwing at his knees.' On a kickoff return, I realized that once I had my man blocked I was pretty much free to do whatever I wanted...so I found out where the wide receiver was [and] came running up behind him. He was the contain man. He didn't see me coming. Just as he was turning inside to face the ballcarrier—it was completely legal—I blindsided him and knocked him on the ground. He got up and said, 'Before the game's over I'm going to knock out one of your knees.' What can you say to that? I made sure I kept my eyes on him the rest of the game.
"[But] what I did to the wide receiver is what the coaches might even call second effort. He was the second guy I took out on that play. The coaches like to see that."
From the twisted logic of "get away with what you can," it is a short hop to malicious mischief, and from there to the deviations that poison a sport. Some of the more recent cases are familiar to fans of televised football:
•The Cardinals' Tim Kearney clotheslines Eagle Running Back Dave Hampton, crashing a forearm into the side of Hampton's neck. Hampton is unconscious for seven minutes before being carried off the field on a stretcher. Kearney defends the blow as "perfectly legal." From the hospital, Hampton says, "That's football."
•Mel Morgan of the Bengals throws a forearm into the face of Steeler Receiver John Stallworth, who has just caught a pass. Morgan gets a penalty and a suspension, Stallworth a concussion. Moments later, Mel Blount of the Steelers kayoes Bengal Tight End Bob Trumpy. The score is even.
•In retaliation for his late hit on Oakland Quarterback Ken Stabler, Cleveland Defensive End Joe (Turkey) Jones is speared in the back by Oakland Guard Gene Upshaw.
•Pittsburgh Defensive Tackle Joe Greene pummels Denver Center Mike Montler after he has already punched out Guard Paul Howard. Greene says it is "under the heading of taking care of yourself." He says he was "being held illegally" and thus "had to go outside the rules."
•The Cardinals' Conrad Dobler hits Dolphin Linebacker Bob Matheson in the head and draws a penalty. Later in the game when Matheson and Dobler lock horns, a bench-clearing brawl erupts.
Football has always been appropriately outraged by such acts. Bulletins are sent out deploring them. Administrators demand answers. Suspensions and fines are levied. The forearm blow Oakland Defensive Back George Atkinson delivered to Pittsburgh Receiver Lynn Swann's head was immortalized on instant replay and, two years later, still draws bitter references. Darrell Royal: "It was lethal, malicious. There was nothing brave or daring about it, nothing tough about that kind of play. A tough guy looks you in the eye, plays you jaw-to-jaw. It's a tough game. But that wasn't football."
People bought tickets to that game expecting to see football. But more and more, what they are getting is a game that has demeaned itself by condoning borderline infractions and ignoring the confused ethics of men like Doug Plank.
Gene Calhoun, a lawyer who has been refereeing in the Big Ten since 1963, is a voice in the wilderness, crying out for sanity. "If they wanted to clear up all excessive violence in football," says Calhoun, "they could do it with one 30-second bulletin: FROM NOW ON, NO LATE HITS. A guy's down, he's down. We're not going to let you demolish a player anymore. We're going to call 'holding' every time we see it, so don't hold. Don't frustrate players into retaliating. No more hits out of bounds. No more extra hits on quarterbacks. No more piling on. No more gang tackling when a back is clearly in the grasp of a tackier and going down. We're going to put a greater burden on a player to know when to let up, when not to use his body or head as a weapon.
"An official's first responsibility is to the players' safety. He gets a bulletin like that, and he calls a game accordingly. An official can call a game as close as he is asked to. But he wouldn't even try if the coaches aren't going to go along. No official is going to martyr himself. He has to have coaches cooperating up and down the line.
"I have a great respect for coaches. I've never had to call one of them for unsportsmanlike conduct on the field. I've never had one argue with me over a personal foul—the cheap shots everybody hates. But the trouble doesn't begin there. It begins on the practice field, where the player is trained. I've seen coaches in practice hold on to a boy's neck, then shove him onto a pile-up [and say] 'That's what I mean by being aggressive! That's what I want!'
"It's wrong, it's dangerous, and it's illegal, but when a player knows that's what the coach wants, he's going to do it. He'll take advantage of every chance.
"You see a ballcarrier go down on a slip, and the defensive player knows he's going down. But he comes up and pops the runner anyway, takes that free shot and hurts him. 'Aggressive play.' Even if the flag had gone down, it wouldn't have prevented the injury. Flags don't prevent injuries. Coaching would have prevented the injury."
Coaches are not monsters. As a group, they are probably as honorable and caring as most. Breaking rules can get them beat or fired. Or both. The great majority think of their calling as a high one, entrusted as they are with the development of young men.
But coaches at almost every level, from high school up, are under great pressure to win. Dan Devine of Notre Dame says, "When a coach starts out, he sees what coaches do and he says, 'I'll do anything to win.' So he cheats. He teaches win at any cost. When he's older, his career is in the balance. He says, 'I'll do anything to stay in.' " The margin for error is painfully thin. Vince Lombardi said that "Winning is not everything, it's the only thing," and although it might put a terrible strain on sportsmanship to accept the corollary that for every winner there has to be a loser, it is an accepted battle cry of coaches. Coaches are ever alert for a leg up, for the "competitive edge," for what is known in the business as "the fair advantage."
The consequence is a desperate kind of existence. Transferred to the field, to the game itself, desperation and win-or-else intensity combine with the high physical properties of the game to produce a war ethic that gets people hurt.
Rare is the coach who sees this. Lee Corso of Indiana does. Like Calhoun, Corso puts the injury problem squarely in the coach's lap—in effect, his own.
"When you have a cancer, you cut it out," says Corso, "you don't put a bandage over it because it won't heal. It all starts with the coaches. What they do dictates what the players do. But we don't cut 'em out. We find a coach is a habitual crook, and we put him on probation, and the next year he's coaching in an All-Star game. We glorify people who have broken the rules. Until we stop doing that, we'll have bums setting examples."
Most coaches accept injury. They complain about it, alibi it, and pay respects to its seriousness, but they accept it. They stand sympathetically over the fallen bodies of their players and call it "the breaks." As the casualty lists mount, they become even more stoical.
Last season, after losing Heisman Trophy candidate Matt Cavanaugh and 24 other players for one game or more, Pitt's Jackie Sherrill called it "the normal risk of football." Villanova's Dick Bedesem said of the rising tide of knee injuries, "I don't think there's anything much you can do." At Davey Nelson's University of Delaware, Coach Tubby Raymond said he thought "Everything that can be done to make football safe is being done. I personally feel there's a great deal more made out of the danger of football than there really is."
Compounding this reluctance to face reality is an inherent suspicion coaches have of rule changes. The result is that they maintain a death grip on the status quo. Clipping was first taught by Walter Camp in 1908, but it was not outlawed until 1949. The crackback block, murderous on knees and nothing more than a legal clip, was not outlawed until 1971 in the colleges, 1974 in the pros. Fearful of change, of having "proven" methods taken from them, coaches, it has been said, would defend a blackjack to the base of the skull if it had been "done that way" in the past.
The analogy, of course, is ridiculous.
Or is it?
Consider the knee. According to the Stanford Research Institute's report, 25% of lost-time injuries to pro football players involve the knee. It is the part of an athlete's body most susceptible to serious injury, and hardly suited to football. The Detroit Lions have had 22 knee operations in the last three years; the Miami Dolphins had 11 in 1976. Of the 26 lost-time injuries that ruined a good Maryland team last year, 18 were below the waist. "But I don't know how we could have eliminated them," said Coach Jerry Claiborne. In a game with Texas A&M in late October, undermanned underdog SMU took a 21-7 lead in the second quarter—and then suffered knee or leg injuries to six defensive starters and lost 38-21. "We were going down like chopped wheat," said Mustang Coach Ron Meyer.
Knee injuries are death on careers. In his eight years with the St. Louis Cardinals, Defensive Back Jerry Stovall broke his nose, lost five teeth, fractured his cheekbone, broke a clavicle, ripped his sternum, broke seven ribs, broke a big toe three times and suffered 11 broken fingers. But it was a knee injury that ended his career in 1971. Knee operations are a dime a dozen—not in cost, but in frequency. Miami Dolphin defensive stars Dick Anderson and Mike Kolen have had three each in the last four years, and they're both retiring before their time, unhealed. Kansas City's E. J. Holub still limps after a record 12 knee operations. After four operations and an abrupt retirement from the San Diego Chargers, Kevin Hardy, then 29, told The Washington Post in 1974 that he experienced almost constant pain, could not run, could not enjoy a round of golf without a cart, could not join his non-football-playing friends skiing or playing tennis or frolicking with their sons. He said he had truly learned "what all those coaches meant when they said you had to pay the price."
Knee injuries are also an increasing basis for lawsuits. In 1974 Dick Butkus sued the Chicago Bears for $1.6 million over his crippled knee, charging that improper medical treatment had caused irreparable damage. He settled for $600,000. In 1977 Bill Enyart won a $770,000 judgment against the Oakland Raiders and their orthopedic surgeon because of a failure to diagnose a torn ligament that ended his career in 1972. This year Bubba Smith sued the NFL, two game officials, one of whom was the down-marker holder, and the Tampa Sports Authority for $2.5 million, claiming a damaged knee—hurt when he hit a yard marker in an exhibition game in Tampa in 1972—had rendered his 270-pound dreadnought of a body ineffective for anything except weather forecasting. Smith said he could tell 12 hours in advance that rain was coming because of the arthritis he said was a consequence of his injury. His trial resulted in a hung jury.
Yet, says Art McNally, the NFL's supervisor of officials, "It has been shown by studies that only 1% of injuries were on plays that were illegal." McNally had been asked if perhaps NFL officials had been lax in calling certain infractions—piling on, late hits, forward progress, etc.—tight enough and with sufficient concern for players' safety. He was defending his officials, but in doing so he was leaving himself wide open. If 99% of these injuries are from "legal" hits, isn't it time to ask whether they should be legal?
Middle Guard Dan Relich of Wisconsin certainly is one who questions where the line should be drawn. Relich was considered one of the best defensive linemen in the Big Ten going into the 1977 season. Wisconsin was playing Ohio State. The Ohio State quarterback rolled out, the center blocked Relich, "straightening him up." Relich put his hands on the center's shoulders to fend him off. He was rigid from the waist down when an Ohio State guard pivoted and blocked down into his knee. The tactic is called a "chop block" by some coaches, a "cut block" by others. It finished Relich for the season.
Ordinarily, players suffer in silence over such injuries. They check into the hospital, take their medicine, count their stitches and keep their mouths shut. Not Relich. "It was a bush thing to do," he said. "It comes with the uniform. You expect to get hurt, but you don't expect it to happen like this. Ohio State has so much talent that you wonder why they have to resort to things like this. It shows a real lack of class. I'll remember it."
Relich said he experienced the same kinds of blocks from Michigan State. "They were on the back of my knees every other play. My knees were so sore and swollen I couldn't practice until Wednesday."
The chop block is legal.
John Jardine, who resigned as the Wisconsin coach with two games left in the 1977 season, took the diplomatic route traveled by his colleagues on such controversial matters. Jardine called the chop block that got Relich "an effective weapon, so it's not easy to say it shouldn't be used, or that someone was using it with that intent. When you cut in on a guy like that, you do take him out of the play."
The same type of legal clip cost Washington's Rose Bowl team its nose guard, Cliff Bethea, and his replacement, David Smith. Darrell Royal has watched the chop block grow in favor in college football and says, "The coach who teaches or condones it ought to have it done to him once or twice.
"Coaches have to ask themselves, 'Are we trying to keep this guy off the passer, or are we trying to put him on crutches?' It's the philosophy we have to find out about. If we don't have sportsmanship, we don't have a game. The players aren't fooled. They know the destruction they can do with those [techniques]. If it's not taught, it's condoned, and that's the same thing."
Dr. William Clancy, the team physician at Wisconsin, decries brutal practices but admits that the problem of changing the game without "reducing it to tag ball" is a rightful concern of coaches. "They're afraid doctors will go off half-cocked," he says.
But left to their own devices, coaches are not likely to go off at all. How many ribs were crushed and spleens ruptured before spearing was disallowed? How many more will go before the helmet is legislated out of the hit business entirely? How many ligaments were torn before crackback blocks were outlawed, and how many more will go before all downfield blocking below the waist is eliminated?
Given the growing prospects of intervention by the courts, coaches can no longer afford to ignore medical evidence. To paraphrase Dr. Clancy, "We're not coaches, but they're not doctors, either." The rules of football are not immutable. The administration of any game has as its first tenet of rule-making the question: Is it safe for those who play it? To keep a sport healthy as well as attractive, the definition of what is "legal" often has to be based on what is "necessary." In light of the medical evidence, the growing number of liability suits and the soaring cost of insurance, the following "necessities" should be examined.
Is it necessary to block any player below the waist on any downfield play?
Former Coach of the Year Ara Parseghian doesn't think so. Parseghian says below-the-waist blocks outside the legal clipping zone—four yards on either side of the center, three yards on either side of the line of scrimmage—are not necessary at all. "On any play where there's a scramble of 22 men," he says, "blindside hits and unprotected hits on knees occur." Florida Coach Doug Dickey thinks that, anyway, the more effective block in that circumstance is "the one where you go through your man, not down at his knees." In January of 1977 the American Football Coaches Association recommended a ban on below-the-waist blocks, but the proposal was overwhelmingly defeated by the NCAA Rules Committee. The NFL has no formal proposals on such a rule change under consideration.
Is the chop block necessary?
No, says Corso. No, says Dickey. No, say Parseghian, Royal and Washington's Don James. No, says Wisconsin Middle Guard Dan Relich. No, no, no.
The rollup block, in which an offensive lineman "rolls" up the back of a defender's legs, is similar in concept. It also is not necessary.
Is it necessary for a third, and even a fourth, 260-pound lineman to help two other 260-pounders put away a ballcarrier when he's already trapped or on the way down?
Norm Evans, the veteran Seattle Sea-hawk offensive tackle and All-Pro, thinks not. Evans is "bugged" by all the piling on he sees in football, the redundant hits on ballcarriers and quarterbacks. He thinks a greater burden should be put on defensive players to make them more aware of the obvious. Should they not know that when they deliver that extra blow they might be doing unnecessary harm? That because they're in the neighborhood doesn't mean they have to crash the party? Should they not be as aware of bounds markers as offensive players? Would it be too much to ask that they realize the ballcarrier is going out of bounds anyway and that it is not necessary to ride him another five yards out?
Late, redundant hits go hand in glove with gang tackling, a tactic spawned by Southern college coaches years ago and given widespread respectability under the euphemism "pursuit." Pursuit is an incontrovertible virtue of defense. The trouble with pursuit is that it often translates into vicious finishing-off blows on backs whose momentum has already been stopped. Contrary to popular belief, the whistle does not have to be blown to signify a player is down. The whistle is to alert everybody that the play is over, not to signify that a ballcarrier's momentum has been stopped.
Once gang tackling became widespread, it was increasingly difficult to distinguish late hits and piling on from momentum. Coaches teach getting to the ball; officials know that. Too often, says San Diego State Trainer Bob Moore, the late hit is regarded as "a sign of team defense instead of a potentially dangerous act of overaggression."
The game, says Moore, is "wrapped up emotionally" in these tactics. "Combine that with officials not calling the late hits, and you have a dangerous situation. The injury does not always happen then. It takes a toll later on—the aspect of prolonged punishment. A player who has been hit head-on for three quarters might try to make an unusual dodge late in the game, take a clumsy step, get hit awkwardly and tear up a knee. I've seen it happen. All this could have started with a piling on early in the game."
Woody Hayes once said that a player good enough to make the Ohio State team "is good enough to change directions in midair." When John Ray was defensive coach at Notre Dame, he said that players like Alan Page, "as good as they are today, can be taught anything—to stop on a dime if you tell them." That being the case, would it be politic to ask them to do exactly that—to turn away from a pileup, to resist taking the "free shot" that momentum allows?
Is it necessary for a defensive player to unload on a receiver when it is obvious the ball is overthrown?
The colleges now have a rule against this practice, making the defender responsible for knowing where the ball is. The pros don't.
Is it necessary to tackle players who don't have the ball, just because they might get it?
Lou Holtz of Arkansas can tell you why he doesn't think so, although this is a favored tactic in the college game, where blindside hits on trailbacks in the option play are allowed. Indeed, the accepted defense against the wishbone or veer is to wipe out the quarterback on every play, whether he keeps the ball or not, and blindside the trailback before he gets it.
"It's legal," says Holtz, "but it's not ethical."
Is it necessary? If you are a defensive coach having to face an Alabama or Oklahoma wishbone, you might say yes, but Doug Dickey says there's another way. He thinks a defensive player responsible for the trailback can play the option as he would cover a pass receiver: go for the pitch if you wish, but if you play the man, just establish your ground until he gets the ball. If he runs into you beforehand, that's his fault. "There's no need to hit the pitch man on every play. Look at it from his standpoint. How would a linebacker like being blindsided time after time, sometimes when the play is past him?"
Is any blow to the head necessary?
Dubious helmet use in blocking and tackling was covered in Part I of this series, but the head is open to other needless attacks. Clubbing, the forearm blow to the neck, has been outlawed in colleges since 1949, but vestiges of it are still around. Fred Akers, the Texas coach, says he "cringes" when he sees rival teams come on the field "with their arms taped to the elbows. I know it's going to be a long day. You should see some of the forearms [hits] we get on ballcarriers, frame by frame. It makes you want to throw up."
In its most virulent expression (the Atkinson and Morgan cases), clubbing has been "cracked down on" in the NFL, according to McNally, but Tom Landry still sees it happening. "They should call a penalty for every blow to a player's head," the Cowboy coach says. "If officials don't stop it," says his assistant, Ermal Allen, "some Sunday some ballcarrier or receiver is going to lose his life."
The overall picture is clear: the rules of the game do not protect the players. The rules are not always "fair" to both parties in the more than 2,000 separate one-on-one hits that are made in the course of a normal football game. The rules need revision. So, it would seem, does the degree of punishment.
John Unitas says the easiest way to stop the foul play of the more brutal players is to "throw them out of the game. That would cure it." Doug Plank, although perhaps an unlikely advocate, agrees. "It would be like enforcing the death penalty," he says. "Right now you practically have to hit somebody on the back and trample on his head to get thrown out. If an official came up [and warned me what would happen] I might not like it, but I'd make darn sure that whatever he was watching [out for] I didn't do in that game."
But what good is a 15-yard penalty for clipping if your player is on his back with a torn knee? Herman Rohrig, the Big Ten's supervisor of officials, says, "We have to impress on players and coaches that football is not an exercise in annihilation." Coaches get more safety conscious when it costs them 15 yards. A way to impress them further might be a 20-yard penalty. Would a player think twice before aiming a forearm at someone's neck if he knew it would cost his team 20 yards—or even 30? Would a 30-yard penalty make a coach more conscious of his humanity?
Would the following be likely to happen this coming New Year's Day? In 1965 Texas played Alabama in the Orange Bowl. It was the last college game for the Tide's Joe Namath. He had just come off knee surgery. Bear Bryant tells how Darrell Royal warned his Texas players before the game, "If anybody hits Namath's knee, he's on the bench. We'll win without that." Namath lasted the game and came within a foot of a touchdown that would have beaten Texas in the last minute.
In commenting on the current atmosphere, Royal, who is now Texas' athletic director, says, "So-and-so [coach of a rival team] was showing films on his highlight show last season. He came to a really vicious hit on a player. The player's helmet flew off. So-and-so laughed, and ran it again."
Such attitudes become license, says Royal. License leads to injury. It begins with the simplest unsportsmanlike acts, acts that are sanctioned by their toleration. What Stanford Coach Bill Walsh calls "the theatrics of the game. Standing over an injured player and using profane language. Pointing to a beaten cornerback after catching a pass. Tactics intended to diminish or physically hurt players. Fifteen or 20 years ago, you could name one or two dirty players on a team. Now there's continuous talking, insults and, before you know it, a clothesline from behind. Or a tackle on a player who is helpless, or when he doesn't expect to be hit without the ball."