It was a spectacle so bizarre, so beyond the realm of common sense and ordinary imagination that it might have been the creation of some mad comic producer—a cross, say, between Mel Brooks and the Marquis de Sade. But there it was: in the clean well-lighted environs of a U.S. district courtroom in San Francisco the National Football League, that most august and shining symbol of American morality, excellence and all-round exemplary life style, was on display with a full line of dirty laundry. The subject was mayhem, and judge and jury listened with fascination as all manner of lurid language was applied to the grand old game—"wanton violence," "gang warfare," "criminal acts," "happiness at pain," "love of blood."
It was not as if the bleak affair involved some of the more tawdry properties or anonymous personalities of the NFL. No, this conflict maligned none but the best: it pitted the gleaming black machine of the Oakland Raiders, Super Bowl champions of '77, against the ancient and venerable organization of the Pittsburgh Steelers, the champions of '75 and '76. The game's most luminous figures were dragged through the muck. The Rooney dynasty of time immemorial in Pittsburgh was there, and so was Al Davis, the maverick mastermind of the Raiders. The Steelers' remarkably successful coach, Chuck Noll, straight as an arrow, was there, and so was John Madden, the hulking but equally talented mentor of Oakland. Some of the game's most renowned performers came to lend their weight to the absurd affair—Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Rocky Bleier, Lynn Swann, Ken Stabler, Jim Otto, among others. In the end, no one was spared. The commissioner himself, Alvin R. Rozelle, flew out from New York to take the stand, suave and tanned dark as an NFL game ball, to deny under oath that his game was fraught with criminal players and brutal plays.
How did this all come to pass? The genesis occurred late in the first half of the first game of the 1976 season, on the afternoon of Sept. 12, when the Raiders and Steelers met in Oakland. Lynn Swann, the splendid wide receiver of the Steelers, ran a pattern down the right side of the field, then cut to the middle. He was covered by George Atkinson, a tough but hitherto unheralded defensive back for the Raiders. As the play unwound, Terry Bradshaw was forced to scramble, eventually firing a pass to Franco Harris, who thundered downfield. As Harris caught the ball, some 15 yards away Atkinson rushed up behind the unsuspecting Swann and cracked him with a forearm at the base of the helmet. Swann dropped as if he were shot. He suffered a concussion and missed the next two games. No official saw Atkinson's blow, no penalty was levied.
What followed thereafter was a series of actions and reactions, some logical and routine, some fraught with foolishness and anger. The day after the game Noll rose before a luncheon press conference in Pittsburgh and spoke coldly of "a criminal element" in the NFL. He said that players like Atkinson should be "kicked out of the league." The game had been the first nationally televised contest of the season and had drawn a huge audience; the NFL office was swamped with calls and letters about Atkinson's hit.
July 31, 1977
A week later, after viewing films and NBC tapes of the play, Pete Rozelle fired off a letter to Atkinson: "In sixteen years in this office I do not recall a more flagrant foul than your clubbing the back of Swann's head totally away from the play.... Our sport obviously involves intense physical contact, but it requires of all players discipline and control and remaining within the rules. Every player deserves protection from the kind of unnecessary roughness that could end his career." Rozelle also levied a $1,500 fine on Atkinson.
Rozelle then wrote a "Dear John and Chuck" letter to Madden and Noll: "A full review of the available films and television tapes of your Sept. 12 game indicates that your 'intense rivalry' of recent years could be on the verge of erupting into something approaching pure violence. There is, of course, no place for that in professional football and you both know it.... Aside from the specific incidents of flagrant action, there are any number of plays in which the actions of many of your players can be questioned. No action was taken in these instances because reasonable doubt exists in my mind as to the intent and motivation of the individuals involved...."
Rozelle sent another letter to Noll concerning his remarks about the NFL's "criminal element." He pointed out that Noll had violated a constitutional bylaw of the league by publicly criticizing another team or player. The commissioner fined the coach $1,000. This letter drew an angry reply from Dan Rooney, president of the Steelers. He charged there had been "direct, premeditated, unemotional efforts by the Oakland Raiders to seriously injure Lynn Swann" and went on to say, "I believe it is a cowardly act to hit someone from behind with his back turned. I also believe, because of the number of Oakland Raider players making such attacks on Lynn, the Raiders must have an opinion that Lynn is vulnerable and can be forced out of the game, which makes such acts premeditated and involves the Raiders' coaching staff as well as the players." Rooney sent along a film clip to prove exactly how brutal the Raiders had been in their assaults on Swann.
Now, ordinarily all of this smoking correspondence would have vanished into the filing cabinets of the NFL office in Manhattan, and the world would never have been the wiser. However, Atkinson decided that Noll's use of the term "criminal element" was a slander against his good name. He filed suit against Noll and the Steelers for $2 million in damages. And that was how the embarrassed moguls of the NFL came to be sitting the last two weeks in Judge Samuel Conti's Courtroom No. 3 in the San Francisco federal building with some of their most private missives blown up in copies eight feet high.
A full and costly cast of six attorneys was there, three for each side. Leading the Steelers' defense was a lion-maned lawyer named James Martin MacInnis, one of northern California's premier defense attorneys; indeed, he had been the Hearst family's first choice to defend Patty after her arrest two years ago. MacInnis, an unctuous but clever orator, told the court in his opening statement when the trial began July 11, "One of the morals of this case is that, in real life, Mr. Atkinson may be a charming young man. You may safely invite him to your drawing room, to your home. But you may not with equal safety encounter him past the line of scrimmage on a football field, particularly if your name is Lynn Swann and your back is turned.... Professional football, as outlined this afternoon, may appear as a primitive game to those who do not follow it. It may appear as gang warfare conducted in uniform, and it may be a lure to all that is violent within any one of us. But there are rules, and without those rules in football the strong would devour the weak and professional football would destroy itself within a short period of time."
Leading Atkinson's legal team was the dapper and flamboyant Willie Brown, a well-known California legislator who has aspirations to run for the U.S. Senate. In his opening statement Brown declared that the Steelers were "the leading cheap-shot artists in pro football," that the Steelers were "simply trying their best to destroy Mr. Atkinson's career," that they were being aided and abetted in this mission by Pete Rozelle himself and that "the league office has deliberately lied on behalf of the Pittsburgh Steelers." Brown concluded ominously, "I think when we finally finish, the question of pro football—as we know it—continuing to be played may very well be in doubt."
Later, out of the courtroom, Brown spoke in even more sweeping terms: "This is opening pro football's Watergate," he said. "Pro football is on trial here. If the jury rules that Atkinson is not slandered by being called part of 'a criminal element' then the term 'criminal' has been judicially certified as a viable, proper, accurate definition of the game. After this, every time a player is injured in a play where there is an intentional foul, he could bring a criminal suit for assault. Hell, you could bring a class action suit against showing the 'criminal' violence of football on TV. Pro football could be X-rated. I did my best to convince the NFL to settle out of court, but they wouldn't pull out."
Indeed, the Steelers' insurance company had tried desperately to convince the club to settle with Atkinson for $50,000. The club refused. Dan Rooney, wan and grim throughout the trial, said, "We were never interested in making a settlement. The wrong people were being sued. If we settled, every player would be suing every time he was criticized. We felt we had to go to court to save the game."
If there were cosmic implications in the case, they were soon lost in a nasty spitting contest that seemed, at times, to be aimed mainly at proving in court whether the Steelers or the Raiders were the dirtiest team in football. Another element of the absurd in the affair was the fact that the jury—four women and two elderly men—were almost utterly ignorant of even the most elementary information about the game of football. Time and again the court was treated to painstaking and lengthy definitions of such arcane terms as "linebacker," "punt returner," "line of scrimmage" and "downs." The jury gasped as films of explicit and intentional violence were shown over and over and over again. Indeed, the trial came to be something of a media carnival. So many reruns of TV tapes and film were shown that one afternoon, as the courtroom lights were dimmed for perhaps the 10th showing of a football film clip, one attorney grumped, "I'm not gonna look at one more of those things unless it's got some majorettes in it."
In one of the more telling episodes of the trial, an excitable young attorney for Atkinson, Daniel S. Mason, confronted the cool and taciturn Noll, who had once spent three years as a law school student himself. As he began, young Mason wheeled a large green blackboard before the court and scrawled in chalk: NOLL'S NFL CRIMINALS. Beneath it he wrote George Atkinson's name. Then he began hammering away at Noll to admit that if there was a criminal element among the 1,200 players of the NFL, certainly Atkinson couldn't be the sole member of it. During some eight hours of tough and often sarcastic exchanges, punctuated with endless films of Steelers committing acts of violence on the field. Mason finally led Noll to expand his "criminal" blackboard list until it included the Raiders' Jack Tatum—and Mel Blount, Mean Joe Greene, Ernie Holmes and Glen Edwards, all prominent members of Noll's own team. Subsequently, Blount filed suit for $5 million in damages as a result of being labeled a "criminal" and declared he would not play for Noll again.
When Defense Attorney MacInnis began to cross-examine Noll, he attempted to introduce a copy of Webster's dictionary so all of the various definitions of "criminal" could be included as evidence. Judge Conti whimsically ruled that the dictionary was hearsay and unless Noah Webster himself appeared to testify it was not allowable evidence. Ultimately, Noll explained that in his mind the term "criminal" had applied only to the rules of the NFL, not to penal law. "If I had meant that," he said, "I probably would have said 'thrown in jail' instead of 'kicked out of the league.' "
Atkinson insisted he had been irreparably damaged by the label. He said, "A cheap-shot artist or a dirty ballplayer—I mean, how many guys are not called that sometime in their career? But to be called an Assassin or the Enforcer or someone that plays with the intention to maim—because of one play, one incident in the nine years I played football, I'm labeled for the rest of my life, you know?" When MacInnis inquired if the great amount of publicity he had received might not be beneficial to a football player, Atkinson replied that he had received many threatening letters and that he habitually wore a warm-up jacket over his uniform during pregame workouts so fans would not throw things at him. He added, "There are two types of publicity. Charles Manson received publicity. Sirhan Sirhan received publicity. The publicity I'm receiving is a direct result of the statements of Coach Chuck Noll."
When Swann testified, he was asked what the state of his mind was after he was felled by Atkinson's blow. He replied coolly, "I had no great desire to play further football. I thought other teams would now come after my head even more than before. I felt that those conditions would not be conducive to my good health."
Raider Managing Partner Al Davis, usually the most casual of dressers, appeared on the witness stand in a white shirt, gray tie and a dead-black suit that MacInnis dubbed his "sincere suit." Davis defended Atkinson, saying, "Anytime anybody steps on the football playing field, there is an element of risk. Every player assumes that. It's part of his contract." He also pointed out that possible injury lurks in every kind of play—legal or illegal. He said, "In every game that I've ever observed we have the paradox—the hypocritical thing—that there are some things that are legal that are more violent than things that are illegal. Our problem is to confront this."
The NFL office had been ordered by Rozelle to cooperate fully in giving out any documents or films requested by either side in the case. This may or may not have been done equally, but when it came to testifying there was no doubt that all the massive power of the league came down squarely on the side of the Steelers. The NFL supervisor of officials, Arthur McNally, was flown into San Francisco and offered damning testimony about Atkinson. Rapidly snapping a switch on a movie projector so Atkinson's shot to Swann's head was repeated—forward and backward, forward and backward—perhaps 30 times for the jury, McNally said briskly of the blow, "It was most unusual, totally unnecessary. It was deliberate. He measured his man."
Rozelle himself came as a witness for the Steelers, too. Although he had already given a lengthy deposition last month in New York, the commissioner had decided that his and the league's reputations were at stake, largely because Atkinson's legal team had focused sharply on the contention that there was a conspiracy on the part of the Rozelle-Rooney Establishment to get the outcast upstart Oakland crowd led by Al Davis. In fact, Willie Brown recalled that he had gone so far as to write a long letter of alarm to Davis before the trial, warning him that "Rozelle and Rooney want to dismantle your team. Every official works for Rozelle and every discretionary play from now on could go against you."
The crux of this Establishment vs. Oakland theory is the longtime feud between Rozelle and Davis, who had been commissioner of the old American Football League when it merged with the NFL in 1966. Davis has long complained about Rozelle's powers, his contract, his handling of the NFL's myriad lawsuits. When league owners voted a lucrative new contract for Rozelle this winter, the vote was 27-1—and few people doubted that Davis was the lone dissenter.
James Cox, a steely whippet of a man who once played for the San Francisco 49ers, was the third member of Atkinson's legal team, and it was he who tried through harsh cross-examination to irk Rozelle and make him reveal some conspiratorial acts between himself and the Steelers. Sarcastically, Cox referred to the NFL office as a "castle on Park Avenue," and when the tanned and immaculate commissioner took the witness stand, Cox inquired snappishly if he had just flown in from the Greek isles. Though Rozelle readily admitted that he had been on the phone with Dan Rooney six or eight times since the trial had begun, he steadfastly denied he had done anything unusual or unfair in handling the Atkinson fine. And when Cox pressed relentlessly to tie Rozelle and Rooney together as cohorts and cronies, the commissioner would not even admit they were "friends." Rozelle said, "We are close acquaintances.... I have never had a meal in Mr. Rooney's home." Cox got Rozelle to say that he had had 14 or 18 phone conversations with Rooney since last fall and that he had had none with Al Davis, but when the attorney asked him why that was the case, Rozelle calmly replied, "I have more communication with Pittsburgh than with Oakland because I get the impression the Oakland organization isn't interested in having much contact with the league office."
The commissioner was unflappable, a strong and tranquil speaker whom Cox later described as "a professional witness." When the attorney asked him flatly if there was a criminal element in the NFL, Rozelle said smoothly, "The way I view the word, as you phrase it, I don't think there is a criminal element—[that is] people who should be convicted by society." When Cox asked Rozelle if he thought Atkinson's value had been diminished because of Noll's statement, the commissioner said, "No. If the Raiders traded George today, I think the incident would have no bearing. He's an outstanding defensive back." Rozelle added that it was indeed possible that Atkinson's worth and career might actually be enhanced through his new notoriety, and he recalled the name of a former Oakland defensive lineman, Ben Davidson, saying, "Davidson, who was a good football player, not a great one, now is into commercials and making movies. He was in a rough tackle, I recall, on Joe Namath."
The attorneys' final summations—by Brown and MacInnis—were fiery, spellbinding and filled with the same semi-hysterical hyperbole that had characterized much of the proceedings. Brown called Atkinson a "pawn" in the case, "a rag-tag kid brawling with the Establishment." Brown declared that the NFL was like a nation unto itself with untold powers of enforcement and mass communication at its beck and call, an American force "second only to the U.S. government in terms of power, scope and potential," and he cried out to the jury, "Make Rooney and Noll atone for their sins just as George Atkinson has had to atone for his sins. Call him what you will, a dirty player, a cheap shot, but not the criminal element. This young man has been labeled for life!"
MacInnis then delivered a stunning fusillade of low blows in his summation, emphasizing previous troubles Atkinson has had with the law—carrying a concealed weapon, charges (but no convictions) of embezzlement and threats to castrate a man. "I'm not saying these charges are true, but to point out what Atkinson's reputation has been. Did Atkinson have a good reputation?" MacInnis demanded of the jury. "Did he have a bad reputation? Since injury to reputation is the gist of slander, a bad reputation must be considered by you." MacInnis then noted that the Oakland crowd had cheered when Atkinson struck Swann, and the attorney said, "I think that's a sad commentary on the motives of our generation.... It's sadistic, this secret love of violence, the spectacle of liking to see others hurt, happiness at pain, enthralled by the love of blood. That's the America of George Atkinson."
With that vicious barrage ringing in their ears, the jurors were sent to deliberate the case. After four hours the six returned their verdict: no slander, no malice, no damages for Atkinson. The 10-day trial was over. But the ugliness of it had stained everything and everyone involved, and may well continue to smear the NFL for a long time to come. As Dan Rooney, the winner, said, "This trial has been the most depressing thing I have ever done."