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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.