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Later, out of the courtroom, Brown spoke in even more sweeping terms: "This is opening pro football's Watergate," he said. "Pro football is on trial here. If the jury rules that Atkinson is not slandered by being called part of 'a criminal element' then the term 'criminal' has been judicially certified as a viable, proper, accurate definition of the game. After this, every time a player is injured in a play where there is an intentional foul, he could bring a criminal suit for assault. Hell, you could bring a class action suit against showing the 'criminal' violence of football on TV. Pro football could be X-rated. I did my best to convince the NFL to settle out of court, but they wouldn't pull out."
Indeed, the Steelers' insurance company had tried desperately to convince the club to settle with Atkinson for $50,000. The club refused. Dan Rooney, wan and grim throughout the trial, said, "We were never interested in making a settlement. The wrong people were being sued. If we settled, every player would be suing every time he was criticized. We felt we had to go to court to save the game."
If there were cosmic implications in the case, they were soon lost in a nasty spitting contest that seemed, at times, to be aimed mainly at proving in court whether the Steelers or the Raiders were the dirtiest team in football. Another element of the absurd in the affair was the fact that the jury—four women and two elderly men—were almost utterly ignorant of even the most elementary information about the game of football. Time and again the court was treated to painstaking and lengthy definitions of such arcane terms as "linebacker," "punt returner," "line of scrimmage" and "downs." The jury gasped as films of explicit and intentional violence were shown over and over and over again. Indeed, the trial came to be something of a media carnival. So many reruns of TV tapes and film were shown that one afternoon, as the courtroom lights were dimmed for perhaps the 10th showing of a football film clip, one attorney grumped, "I'm not gonna look at one more of those things unless it's got some majorettes in it."
In one of the more telling episodes of the trial, an excitable young attorney for Atkinson, Daniel S. Mason, confronted the cool and taciturn Noll, who had once spent three years as a law school student himself. As he began, young Mason wheeled a large green blackboard before the court and scrawled in chalk: NOLL'S NFL CRIMINALS. Beneath it he wrote George Atkinson's name. Then he began hammering away at Noll to admit that if there was a criminal element among the 1,200 players of the NFL, certainly Atkinson couldn't be the sole member of it. During some eight hours of tough and often sarcastic exchanges, punctuated with endless films of Steelers committing acts of violence on the field. Mason finally led Noll to expand his "criminal" blackboard list until it included the Raiders' Jack Tatum—and Mel Blount, Mean Joe Greene, Ernie Holmes and Glen Edwards, all prominent members of Noll's own team. Subsequently, Blount filed suit for $5 million in damages as a result of being labeled a "criminal" and declared he would not play for Noll again.
When Defense Attorney MacInnis began to cross-examine Noll, he attempted to introduce a copy of Webster's dictionary so all of the various definitions of "criminal" could be included as evidence. Judge Conti whimsically ruled that the dictionary was hearsay and unless Noah Webster himself appeared to testify it was not allowable evidence. Ultimately, Noll explained that in his mind the term "criminal" had applied only to the rules of the NFL, not to penal law. "If I had meant that," he said, "I probably would have said 'thrown in jail' instead of 'kicked out of the league.' "
Atkinson insisted he had been irreparably damaged by the label. He said, "A cheap-shot artist or a dirty ballplayer—I mean, how many guys are not called that sometime in their career? But to be called an Assassin or the Enforcer or someone that plays with the intention to maim—because of one play, one incident in the nine years I played football, I'm labeled for the rest of my life, you know?" When MacInnis inquired if the great amount of publicity he had received might not be beneficial to a football player, Atkinson replied that he had received many threatening letters and that he habitually wore a warm-up jacket over his uniform during pregame workouts so fans would not throw things at him. He added, "There are two types of publicity. Charles Manson received publicity. Sirhan Sirhan received publicity. The publicity I'm receiving is a direct result of the statements of Coach Chuck Noll."
When Swann testified, he was asked what the state of his mind was after he was felled by Atkinson's blow. He replied coolly, "I had no great desire to play further football. I thought other teams would now come after my head even more than before. I felt that those conditions would not be conducive to my good health."
Raider Managing Partner Al Davis, usually the most casual of dressers, appeared on the witness stand in a white shirt, gray tie and a dead-black suit that MacInnis dubbed his "sincere suit." Davis defended Atkinson, saying, "Anytime anybody steps on the football playing field, there is an element of risk. Every player assumes that. It's part of his contract." He also pointed out that possible injury lurks in every kind of play—legal or illegal. He said, "In every game that I've ever observed we have the paradox—the hypocritical thing—that there are some things that are legal that are more violent than things that are illegal. Our problem is to confront this."
The NFL office had been ordered by Rozelle to cooperate fully in giving out any documents or films requested by either side in the case. This may or may not have been done equally, but when it came to testifying there was no doubt that all the massive power of the league came down squarely on the side of the Steelers. The NFL supervisor of officials, Arthur McNally, was flown into San Francisco and offered damning testimony about Atkinson. Rapidly snapping a switch on a movie projector so Atkinson's shot to Swann's head was repeated—forward and backward, forward and backward—perhaps 30 times for the jury, McNally said briskly of the blow, "It was most unusual, totally unnecessary. It was deliberate. He measured his man."
Rozelle himself came as a witness for the Steelers, too. Although he had already given a lengthy deposition last month in New York, the commissioner had decided that his and the league's reputations were at stake, largely because Atkinson's legal team had focused sharply on the contention that there was a conspiracy on the part of the Rozelle-Rooney Establishment to get the outcast upstart Oakland crowd led by Al Davis. In fact, Willie Brown recalled that he had gone so far as to write a long letter of alarm to Davis before the trial, warning him that " Rozelle and Rooney want to dismantle your team. Every official works for Rozelle and every discretionary play from now on could go against you."