SI Vault
William Oscar Johnson
August 01, 1977
The trial of Raider George Atkinson's $2 million slander suit against Steeler Coach Chuck Noll turned into a lurid spitting match that did nothing to help the game of pro football
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August 01, 1977

A Walk On The Sordid Side

The trial of Raider George Atkinson's $2 million slander suit against Steeler Coach Chuck Noll turned into a lurid spitting match that did nothing to help the game of pro football

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It was a spectacle so bizarre, so beyond the realm of common sense and ordinary imagination that it might have been the creation of some mad comic producer—a cross, say, between Mel Brooks and the Marquis de Sade. But there it was: in the clean well-lighted environs of a U.S. district courtroom in San Francisco the National Football League, that most august and shining symbol of American morality, excellence and all-round exemplary life style, was on display with a full line of dirty laundry. The subject was mayhem, and judge and jury listened with fascination as all manner of lurid language was applied to the grand old game—"wanton violence," "gang warfare," "criminal acts," "happiness at pain," "love of blood."

It was not as if the bleak affair involved some of the more tawdry properties or anonymous personalities of the NFL. No, this conflict maligned none but the best: it pitted the gleaming black machine of the Oakland Raiders, Super Bowl champions of '77, against the ancient and venerable organization of the Pittsburgh Steelers, the champions of '75 and '76. The game's most luminous figures were dragged through the muck. The Rooney dynasty of time immemorial in Pittsburgh was there, and so was Al Davis, the maverick mastermind of the Raiders. The Steelers' remarkably successful coach, Chuck Noll, straight as an arrow, was there, and so was John Madden, the hulking but equally talented mentor of Oakland. Some of the game's most renowned performers came to lend their weight to the absurd affair—Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Rocky Bleier, Lynn Swann, Ken Stabler, Jim Otto, among others. In the end, no one was spared. The commissioner himself, Alvin R. Rozelle, flew out from New York to take the stand, suave and tanned dark as an NFL game ball, to deny under oath that his game was fraught with criminal players and brutal plays.

How did this all come to pass? The genesis occurred late in the first half of the first game of the 1976 season, on the afternoon of Sept. 12, when the Raiders and Steelers met in Oakland. Lynn Swann, the splendid wide receiver of the Steelers, ran a pattern down the right side of the field, then cut to the middle. He was covered by George Atkinson, a tough but hitherto unheralded defensive back for the Raiders. As the play unwound, Terry Bradshaw was forced to scramble, eventually firing a pass to Franco Harris, who thundered downfield. As Harris caught the ball, some 15 yards away Atkinson rushed up behind the unsuspecting Swann and cracked him with a forearm at the base of the helmet. Swann dropped as if he were shot. He suffered a concussion and missed the next two games. No official saw Atkinson's blow, no penalty was levied.

What followed thereafter was a series of actions and reactions, some logical and routine, some fraught with foolishness and anger. The day after the game Noll rose before a luncheon press conference in Pittsburgh and spoke coldly of "a criminal element" in the NFL. He said that players like Atkinson should be "kicked out of the league." The game had been the first nationally televised contest of the season and had drawn a huge audience; the NFL office was swamped with calls and letters about Atkinson's hit.

A week later, after viewing films and NBC tapes of the play, Pete Rozelle fired off a letter to Atkinson: "In sixteen years in this office I do not recall a more flagrant foul than your clubbing the back of Swann's head totally away from the play.... Our sport obviously involves intense physical contact, but it requires of all players discipline and control and remaining within the rules. Every player deserves protection from the kind of unnecessary roughness that could end his career." Rozelle also levied a $1,500 fine on Atkinson.

Rozelle then wrote a "Dear John and Chuck" letter to Madden and Noll: "A full review of the available films and television tapes of your Sept. 12 game indicates that your 'intense rivalry' of recent years could be on the verge of erupting into something approaching pure violence. There is, of course, no place for that in professional football and you both know it.... Aside from the specific incidents of flagrant action, there are any number of plays in which the actions of many of your players can be questioned. No action was taken in these instances because reasonable doubt exists in my mind as to the intent and motivation of the individuals involved...."

Rozelle sent another letter to Noll concerning his remarks about the NFL's "criminal element." He pointed out that Noll had violated a constitutional bylaw of the league by publicly criticizing another team or player. The commissioner fined the coach $1,000. This letter drew an angry reply from Dan Rooney, president of the Steelers. He charged there had been "direct, premeditated, unemotional efforts by the Oakland Raiders to seriously injure Lynn Swann" and went on to say, "I believe it is a cowardly act to hit someone from behind with his back turned. I also believe, because of the number of Oakland Raider players making such attacks on Lynn, the Raiders must have an opinion that Lynn is vulnerable and can be forced out of the game, which makes such acts premeditated and involves the Raiders' coaching staff as well as the players." Rooney sent along a film clip to prove exactly how brutal the Raiders had been in their assaults on Swann.

Now, ordinarily all of this smoking correspondence would have vanished into the filing cabinets of the NFL office in Manhattan, and the world would never have been the wiser. However, Atkinson decided that Noll's use of the term "criminal element" was a slander against his good name. He filed suit against Noll and the Steelers for $2 million in damages. And that was how the embarrassed moguls of the NFL came to be sitting the last two weeks in Judge Samuel Conti's Courtroom No. 3 in the San Francisco federal building with some of their most private missives blown up in copies eight feet high.

A full and costly cast of six attorneys was there, three for each side. Leading the Steelers' defense was a lion-maned lawyer named James Martin MacInnis, one of northern California's premier defense attorneys; indeed, he had been the Hearst family's first choice to defend Patty after her arrest two years ago. MacInnis, an unctuous but clever orator, told the court in his opening statement when the trial began July 11, "One of the morals of this case is that, in real life, Mr. Atkinson may be a charming young man. You may safely invite him to your drawing room, to your home. But you may not with equal safety encounter him past the line of scrimmage on a football field, particularly if your name is Lynn Swann and your back is turned.... Professional football, as outlined this afternoon, may appear as a primitive game to those who do not follow it. It may appear as gang warfare conducted in uniform, and it may be a lure to all that is violent within any one of us. But there are rules, and without those rules in football the strong would devour the weak and professional football would destroy itself within a short period of time."

Leading Atkinson's legal team was the dapper and flamboyant Willie Brown, a well-known California legislator who has aspirations to run for the U.S. Senate. In his opening statement Brown declared that the Steelers were "the leading cheap-shot artists in pro football," that the Steelers were "simply trying their best to destroy Mr. Atkinson's career," that they were being aided and abetted in this mission by Pete Rozelle himself and that "the league office has deliberately lied on behalf of the Pittsburgh Steelers." Brown concluded ominously, "I think when we finally finish, the question of pro football—as we know it—continuing to be played may very well be in doubt."

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