Knee injuries are also an increasing basis for lawsuits. In 1974 Dick Butkus sued the Chicago Bears for $1.6 million over his crippled knee, charging that improper medical treatment had caused irreparable damage. He settled for $600,000. In 1977 Bill Enyart won a $770,000 judgment against the Oakland Raiders and their orthopedic surgeon because of a failure to diagnose a torn ligament that ended his career in 1972. This year Bubba Smith sued the NFL, two game officials, one of whom was the down-marker holder, and the Tampa Sports Authority for $2.5 million, claiming a damaged knee—hurt when he hit a yard marker in an exhibition game in Tampa in 1972—had rendered his 270-pound dreadnought of a body ineffective for anything except weather forecasting. Smith said he could tell 12 hours in advance that rain was coming because of the arthritis he said was a consequence of his injury. His trial resulted in a hung jury.
Yet, says Art McNally, the NFL's supervisor of officials, "It has been shown by studies that only 1% of injuries were on plays that were illegal." McNally had been asked if perhaps NFL officials had been lax in calling certain infractions—piling on, late hits, forward progress, etc.—tight enough and with sufficient concern for players' safety. He was defending his officials, but in doing so he was leaving himself wide open. If 99% of these injuries are from "legal" hits, isn't it time to ask whether they should be legal?
Middle Guard Dan Relich of Wisconsin certainly is one who questions where the line should be drawn. Relich was considered one of the best defensive linemen in the Big Ten going into the 1977 season. Wisconsin was playing Ohio State. The Ohio State quarterback rolled out, the center blocked Relich, "straightening him up." Relich put his hands on the center's shoulders to fend him off. He was rigid from the waist down when an Ohio State guard pivoted and blocked down into his knee. The tactic is called a "chop block" by some coaches, a "cut block" by others. It finished Relich for the season.
Ordinarily, players suffer in silence over such injuries. They check into the hospital, take their medicine, count their stitches and keep their mouths shut. Not Relich. "It was a bush thing to do," he said. "It comes with the uniform. You expect to get hurt, but you don't expect it to happen like this. Ohio State has so much talent that you wonder why they have to resort to things like this. It shows a real lack of class. I'll remember it."
Relich said he experienced the same kinds of blocks from Michigan State. "They were on the back of my knees every other play. My knees were so sore and swollen I couldn't practice until Wednesday."
The chop block is legal.
John Jardine, who resigned as the Wisconsin coach with two games left in the 1977 season, took the diplomatic route traveled by his colleagues on such controversial matters. Jardine called the chop block that got Relich "an effective weapon, so it's not easy to say it shouldn't be used, or that someone was using it with that intent. When you cut in on a guy like that, you do take him out of the play."
The same type of legal clip cost Washington's Rose Bowl team its nose guard, Cliff Bethea, and his replacement, David Smith. Darrell Royal has watched the chop block grow in favor in college football and says, "The coach who teaches or condones it ought to have it done to him once or twice.
"Coaches have to ask themselves, 'Are we trying to keep this guy off the passer, or are we trying to put him on crutches?' It's the philosophy we have to find out about. If we don't have sportsmanship, we don't have a game. The players aren't fooled. They know the destruction they can do with those [techniques]. If it's not taught, it's condoned, and that's the same thing."
Dr. William Clancy, the team physician at Wisconsin, decries brutal practices but admits that the problem of changing the game without "reducing it to tag ball" is a rightful concern of coaches. "They're afraid doctors will go off half-cocked," he says.