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The suit's success apparently was inspirational. In Dade County itself two other suits nearly identical to Stead's were filed, one for $5 million against Medalist Gladiator Athletic, Inc. of Leesburg, Fla. on behalf of Leroy (Butch) Jenkins, who was paralyzed in December 1975 while playing in a sandlot game in Miami, and the other against Riddell and a sporting-goods store on behalf of a high schooler named George Cunningham.
Nationwide, helmet manufacturers now face between $116 million and $150 million in negligence suits. At a minimum, the suits represent five times the annual gross of the industry ($24 million) and 100 times its annual profit. They have caused grave concern. At the time of Stead's suit there were 14 helmet manufacturers in the country. There are now eight.
Frank Gordon, the president of Riddell, says his company "will stick it out to the end," but it is "a safe bet others will not." Riddell, for example, paid $40,000 for liability insurance in 1975. This year it anticipates premiums of $1.5 million. Some of the independent manufacturers are playing a kind of fiscal Russian roulette: they can't afford to lose a lawsuit and they can't afford the insurance, so they cancel the latter and pray about the former. The larger equipment manufacturers are owned by conglomerates (Riddell by Wynns International, Rawlings by A-T-O, Wilson by PepsiCo), but the conglomerates will not continue to throw good money after bad forever. For the time being, the manufacturers are passing some of the increased insurance costs on to buyers; they are also contemplating forming their own insurance companies.
The immediate dilemma is twofold:
1) Can a parent company, with much to lose, justify a potential catastrophe by a subsidiary whose profits are chicken feed in the corporate picture?
2) Can football be played without helmets?
In respect to the latter, Coach Pop Warner of the Carlisle Indians argued in 1912 that playing without helmets "gives players more confidence, saves their heads from any hard jolts and keeps their ears from becoming torn or sore." But the helmets Warner was referring to were little more than leather pancakes, flapping down over the ears. The modern hard-shell helmet, introduced as a safety breakthrough at the All-Star Game in 1939, had a subtle but far-reaching psychological effect on play. "Courage was a lot easier to come by," says Davey Nelson, University of Delaware athletic director, who is also secretary-editor of the NCAA Rules Committee. "Before [hard-shell helmets], you had to slip blows like a boxer slips punches. You blocked with your shoulder, you tackled with your shoulder. You didn't put your head in places they do now."
Soon enough after its introduction, coaches learned something else about the hard-shell helmet: it was an effective weapon. Techniques known as butt-blocking and butt-tackling became prevalent. Players rammed headfirst into pileups, into defenders, into hapless quarterbacks and into immobile running backs to put the finishing touch on tackles. The helmet became the game's principal instrument of intimidation, and terms like "spearing," "spiking" and "sticking" became part of the argot.
Today, plastered with decals like a World War II fighter plane, the helmet is a stylish-looking engineering marvel: a three-pounds-plus artillery piece of polycarbonate, styrene and leather, honeycombed with pods of rubber, water, antifreeze or foam and costing up to $100. Doug Dickey, the University of Florida coach who played when a helmet was little more than a plastic shell suspended on one's head by a few elastic straps, picked one up recently and was "astounded how heavy it was. It was like lifting a bowling ball."
A helmet has the effect of a bowling ball on impact, says Dr. Cooper. "If a kid isn't seriously hurt by it in a game Saturday, on Sunday he has so many bruises he looks like he's been tattooed with a ball peen hammer. There's nothing wrong with the helmet itself. Doing what it was intended to do—protecting the head—it performs adequately. We seldom see a fractured cheek or skull anymore. What's wrong is the way it is used. Everything that has to do with a meaningful existence runs through that four-inch segment of your body [the neck]. Do like the coaches tell you—jam that helmet or face guard into something, force that helmet back—and it's worse than a karate chop. The head was not meant to be a battering ram."