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AN UNFOLDING TRAGEDY
John Underwood
August 14, 1978
As football injuries mount, lawsuits increase and insurance rates soar. The game is headed toward a crisis, one that is epitomized by the helmet, which is both a barbarous weapon and inadequate protection
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August 14, 1978

An Unfolding Tragedy

As football injuries mount, lawsuits increase and insurance rates soar. The game is headed toward a crisis, one that is epitomized by the helmet, which is both a barbarous weapon and inadequate protection

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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.' "

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