Nor has the colleges' fine-line definition of what is and what isn't legal stopped spearing. "It's more prevalent than ever," says SMU Defensive Coordinator Steve Sidwell. "You see it all the time," says Paterno. "You just don't see it called. What is worse, you see it as the third and fourth hits on a player." Watching last year's Liberty Bowl, Dr. Cooper was outraged. "Early in the game, a player digs his helmet right in the kidneys of a Nebraska runner," he says. "No flag. Two minutes before it's over, a North Carolina player is flat on his back when this Nebraska guy comes and just spikes him. Again, no flag. They should have thrown 'em both out of the game. When players play like a bunch of billy goats, it's because they're taught to play that way."
Herman Rohrig, supervisor of the Big Ten officials, annually puts together a film to educate coaches and officials about what is going on in the game today. It is a horror show of flying elbows and slashing forearms. Time after time a helmet can be seen making hard first contact—spearing, butting. "Coaches say, 'We don't have a problem,' " Rohrig says, "We say, 'Oh yeah? Look at this.' "
Gene Calhoun is considered to be one of Rohrig's top referees. An ex-high school football player and a former baseball coach at Wisconsin, he has officiated in the Big Ten for 15 years. He is also a Madison, Wis. attorney. Calhoun says that if somebody doesn't stop coaches from teaching helmet-first tackling and blocking, the courts are going to step in and start making football rules. And then, he says, coaches may find themselves side-by-side at the bar with the helmet manufacturers.
Says Calhoun, "The thing that is extremely critical is this: Why was the NCAA formed? Roosevelt said, 'Clean up football or abolish it.' What was happening then is happening now. Boys are getting hurt unnecessarily. No. 1 for all of us is the safety of the players. The men on the Rules Committee are intelligent, honorable men who have the best interest of the players at heart. But changing the rules is not enough, and our calling more penalties is not enough if the coaches don't change their habits. It has to be a cooperative venture, and there's more at stake than coaches realize.
"When people get hurt, a chain of liability could very well be triggered to involve everybody—the players, the coaches, the officials, the schools, the conferences—even the NCAA itself. If they haven't done everything expected of reasonable people to prevent the type of injury that makes an individual a quadriplegic, they are all going to find themselves on the hook.
"You don't think it can happen? A high school coach in Thornburg, Iowa was named, along with a school district and a sporting-goods store, in a $2 million suit. A Milton College [ Wis.] player whose neck was injured in a head-on tackle named the school and its insurance company in a $3.1 million suit. The kid's lawyers proceeded on the theory that the boy was not coached in the dangers of this type of tackling. In fact, he might have been taught otherwise—stick that head in there, make contact."
Can the helmet be defused? Moreover, can it be defused in time?
Predictably, with so many special interests involved, there is no general agreement. Even what would seem to be the most obvious first step has consistently met resistance: the recommendation, made as early as 1972 by the American Medical Association, that helmets be padded with a "soft outer covering." Today's helmets are so hard that Maryland Quarterback Mark Manges broke his hand on one last year just following through on a forward pass.
Paterno has long advocated padded helmets but does not get much support from his colleagues. Coaches resist, says Dr. Cooper, "because a padded helmet doesn't give 'em that big whack when somebody gets hit. It's the same reason they don't like padded shoulder pads. Coaches want to hear noise. They love noise. Equipment makers know that coaches, not physicians, buy helmets.
"Most coaches today never played in the helmet that is being used. They don't realize. Cornell used padded helmets for 20 years. Teams were thrilled to play Cornell. Head and neck injuries were reduced, and when they went home they weren't all black and blue. Cornell would still be using 'em, but MacGregor [the manufacturer] quit making 'em. MacGregor's lawyers told 'em to get the hell out of the helmet business because it'll burn your tail. They sold the molds to Bill Kelley [president of a firm in Grand Prairie, Texas] and Kelley still makes 'em for Gene Upshaw and two or three other pros. They won't play without 'em.