Ideally, you should be able to play any game without referees or umpires. Players of sport should also be sportsmen. Officials of sport should make rulings, not serve as cops keeping athletes from maiming each other.
But that is exactly what is happening in football. It is naive and dangerous to think otherwise. Certain practices of coaching and play have evolved that have increased the likelihood of injury. And the higher the level of play, the more brutal the practices. Yet football has not yet become Rollerball. Skill, not mayhem, is still its primary attraction.
But the game has changed. Skill and technique and teamwork have lost ground to intimidation and wanton aggression; ruthless play within the rules has led to unconscionable acts that have contributed to an injury rate that is now unacceptable—and to increasing litigation by an increasingly litigious society. Football has become a game in which rule-maneuvering is so much a way of life that the men who coach it, and the men who play it, are often indifferent to the game's aberrations.
"The basic problem of football today," says Davey Nelson, the University of Delaware athletic director and secretary-editor of the NCAA Rules Committee, "is not to see if you can win within the rules, but to see how much you can get away with to help win."
August 20, 1978
The process by which permissible aggression becomes mayhem is not difficult to trace. Sometimes it can be found simply by listening to the young men who play the game:
Dean Payne is a linebacker at Northwestern. He is a sophomore from Chester, Pa. Says Payne, "All the coaches stress gang tackling. You're taught to be there at the ball—once you're there, you're not supposed to stare at it. You're supposed to pile on. It becomes a really violent state of mind—you really get fired up and motivated to get someone. Everyone accepts things like late hits as part of the game."
The college player advances into the pros, where his aggression is marketable and becomes a springboard to affluence. Jean Fugett, from Amherst, now is a tight end for the Washington Redskins.
"I never understood the real violence of the game until I played pro ball," Fugett told Charley McKenna of The Milwaukee Sentinel. "I had to work very hard to be aggressive. I used to have to start making up stuff like, 'This guy raped my mother' to get physical enough to really hit him.... Intimidation is the biggest part of the game. You can't let anyone get away with anything because everything you do is on film. If you let yourself be intimidated, the team you play next week will see it on the films and may try the same thing."
Fugett said that when he played for the Dallas Cowboys he tried to avoid brute force, to make blocks with finesse. He said his style did not sit well with Assistant Coach Mike Ditka, a former All-Pro tight end.
"Ditka was always saying I wasn't aggressive enough. Do you want to know how Ditka taught us how to block in Dallas? He told us to fire out and hit [the opponent] in the chest with our helmets, then bring both arms up like this and hit [him] with both fists [in the groin]. Now I just couldn't do that, and I didn't. But if a guy does that to me, it's different.... This is one job where you can come to work every day and really take out your frustrations."
When he gets really good at it, the pro player becomes the consummate aggressor. He becomes Doug Plank, a defensive back for the Chicago Bears. Plank thinks of himself as "an excellent example of a player who plays within the rules...the way I'm taught." Not everybody agrees with Plank's self-evaluation.
Plank says, "The only specialty teams I play on are the kickoff returns and, every now and then, a punt return. I don't want a team to be able to send two or three guys after me. My reputation got to be a problem. My coaches understand, so it wasn't hard to get them to pull me off [other specialty teams]. They joked about it. 'Yeah, if we put you out there, they'll stick all 11 guys on you.'
"Opposing players complain about my hits. They complain to me. But I don't really feel I'm at fault if there is no penalty called.
"[Last year] there was a wide receiver who'd been trying to come down on me all day, throwing [himself] around my legs. There was one play in particular—a play that was almost over, and that I had had no part in—where he went out of his way to go for me. I started to think, 'I wonder how he would like it if I started throwing at his knees.' On a kickoff return, I realized that once I had my man blocked I was pretty much free to do whatever I wanted...so I found out where the wide receiver was [and] came running up behind him. He was the contain man. He didn't see me coming. Just as he was turning inside to face the ballcarrier—it was completely legal—I blindsided him and knocked him on the ground. He got up and said, 'Before the game's over I'm going to knock out one of your knees.' What can you say to that? I made sure I kept my eyes on him the rest of the game.
"[But] what I did to the wide receiver is what the coaches might even call second effort. He was the second guy I took out on that play. The coaches like to see that."
From the twisted logic of "get away with what you can," it is a short hop to malicious mischief, and from there to the deviations that poison a sport. Some of the more recent cases are familiar to fans of televised football:
•The Cardinals' Tim Kearney clotheslines Eagle Running Back Dave Hampton, crashing a forearm into the side of Hampton's neck. Hampton is unconscious for seven minutes before being carried off the field on a stretcher. Kearney defends the blow as "perfectly legal." From the hospital, Hampton says, "That's football."
•Mel Morgan of the Bengals throws a forearm into the face of Steeler Receiver John Stallworth, who has just caught a pass. Morgan gets a penalty and a suspension, Stallworth a concussion. Moments later, Mel Blount of the Steelers kayoes Bengal Tight End Bob Trumpy. The score is even.
•In retaliation for his late hit on Oakland Quarterback Ken Stabler, Cleveland Defensive End Joe (Turkey) Jones is speared in the back by Oakland Guard Gene Upshaw.
•Pittsburgh Defensive Tackle Joe Greene pummels Denver Center Mike Montler after he has already punched out Guard Paul Howard. Greene says it is "under the heading of taking care of yourself." He says he was "being held illegally" and thus "had to go outside the rules."
•The Cardinals' Conrad Dobler hits Dolphin Linebacker Bob Matheson in the head and draws a penalty. Later in the game when Matheson and Dobler lock horns, a bench-clearing brawl erupts.
Football has always been appropriately outraged by such acts. Bulletins are sent out deploring them. Administrators demand answers. Suspensions and fines are levied. The forearm blow Oakland Defensive Back George Atkinson delivered to Pittsburgh Receiver Lynn Swann's head was immortalized on instant replay and, two years later, still draws bitter references. Darrell Royal: "It was lethal, malicious. There was nothing brave or daring about it, nothing tough about that kind of play. A tough guy looks you in the eye, plays you jaw-to-jaw. It's a tough game. But that wasn't football."
People bought tickets to that game expecting to see football. But more and more, what they are getting is a game that has demeaned itself by condoning borderline infractions and ignoring the confused ethics of men like Doug Plank.
Gene Calhoun, a lawyer who has been refereeing in the Big Ten since 1963, is a voice in the wilderness, crying out for sanity. "If they wanted to clear up all excessive violence in football," says Calhoun, "they could do it with one 30-second bulletin: FROM NOW ON, NO LATE HITS. A guy's down, he's down. We're not going to let you demolish a player anymore. We're going to call 'holding' every time we see it, so don't hold. Don't frustrate players into retaliating. No more hits out of bounds. No more extra hits on quarterbacks. No more piling on. No more gang tackling when a back is clearly in the grasp of a tackier and going down. We're going to put a greater burden on a player to know when to let up, when not to use his body or head as a weapon.
"An official's first responsibility is to the players' safety. He gets a bulletin like that, and he calls a game accordingly. An official can call a game as close as he is asked to. But he wouldn't even try if the coaches aren't going to go along. No official is going to martyr himself. He has to have coaches cooperating up and down the line.
"I have a great respect for coaches. I've never had to call one of them for unsportsmanlike conduct on the field. I've never had one argue with me over a personal foul—the cheap shots everybody hates. But the trouble doesn't begin there. It begins on the practice field, where the player is trained. I've seen coaches in practice hold on to a boy's neck, then shove him onto a pile-up [and say] 'That's what I mean by being aggressive! That's what I want!'
"It's wrong, it's dangerous, and it's illegal, but when a player knows that's what the coach wants, he's going to do it. He'll take advantage of every chance.
"You see a ballcarrier go down on a slip, and the defensive player knows he's going down. But he comes up and pops the runner anyway, takes that free shot and hurts him. 'Aggressive play.' Even if the flag had gone down, it wouldn't have prevented the injury. Flags don't prevent injuries. Coaching would have prevented the injury."
Coaches are not monsters. As a group, they are probably as honorable and caring as most. Breaking rules can get them beat or fired. Or both. The great majority think of their calling as a high one, entrusted as they are with the development of young men.
But coaches at almost every level, from high school up, are under great pressure to win. Dan Devine of Notre Dame says, "When a coach starts out, he sees what coaches do and he says, 'I'll do anything to win.' So he cheats. He teaches win at any cost. When he's older, his career is in the balance. He says, 'I'll do anything to stay in.' " The margin for error is painfully thin. Vince Lombardi said that "Winning is not everything, it's the only thing," and although it might put a terrible strain on sportsmanship to accept the corollary that for every winner there has to be a loser, it is an accepted battle cry of coaches. Coaches are ever alert for a leg up, for the "competitive edge," for what is known in the business as "the fair advantage."
The consequence is a desperate kind of existence. Transferred to the field, to the game itself, desperation and win-or-else intensity combine with the high physical properties of the game to produce a war ethic that gets people hurt.
Rare is the coach who sees this. Lee Corso of Indiana does. Like Calhoun, Corso puts the injury problem squarely in the coach's lap—in effect, his own.
"When you have a cancer, you cut it out," says Corso, "you don't put a bandage over it because it won't heal. It all starts with the coaches. What they do dictates what the players do. But we don't cut 'em out. We find a coach is a habitual crook, and we put him on probation, and the next year he's coaching in an All-Star game. We glorify people who have broken the rules. Until we stop doing that, we'll have bums setting examples."
Most coaches accept injury. They complain about it, alibi it, and pay respects to its seriousness, but they accept it. They stand sympathetically over the fallen bodies of their players and call it "the breaks." As the casualty lists mount, they become even more stoical.
Last season, after losing Heisman Trophy candidate Matt Cavanaugh and 24 other players for one game or more, Pitt's Jackie Sherrill called it "the normal risk of football." Villanova's Dick Bedesem said of the rising tide of knee injuries, "I don't think there's anything much you can do." At Davey Nelson's University of Delaware, Coach Tubby Raymond said he thought "Everything that can be done to make football safe is being done. I personally feel there's a great deal more made out of the danger of football than there really is."
Compounding this reluctance to face reality is an inherent suspicion coaches have of rule changes. The result is that they maintain a death grip on the status quo. Clipping was first taught by Walter Camp in 1908, but it was not outlawed until 1949. The crackback block, murderous on knees and nothing more than a legal clip, was not outlawed until 1971 in the colleges, 1974 in the pros. Fearful of change, of having "proven" methods taken from them, coaches, it has been said, would defend a blackjack to the base of the skull if it had been "done that way" in the past.
The analogy, of course, is ridiculous.
Or is it?
Consider the knee. According to the Stanford Research Institute's report, 25% of lost-time injuries to pro football players involve the knee. It is the part of an athlete's body most susceptible to serious injury, and hardly suited to football. The Detroit Lions have had 22 knee operations in the last three years; the Miami Dolphins had 11 in 1976. Of the 26 lost-time injuries that ruined a good Maryland team last year, 18 were below the waist. "But I don't know how we could have eliminated them," said Coach Jerry Claiborne. In a game with Texas A&M in late October, undermanned underdog SMU took a 21-7 lead in the second quarter—and then suffered knee or leg injuries to six defensive starters and lost 38-21. "We were going down like chopped wheat," said Mustang Coach Ron Meyer.
Knee injuries are death on careers. In his eight years with the St. Louis Cardinals, Defensive Back Jerry Stovall broke his nose, lost five teeth, fractured his cheekbone, broke a clavicle, ripped his sternum, broke seven ribs, broke a big toe three times and suffered 11 broken fingers. But it was a knee injury that ended his career in 1971. Knee operations are a dime a dozen—not in cost, but in frequency. Miami Dolphin defensive stars Dick Anderson and Mike Kolen have had three each in the last four years, and they're both retiring before their time, unhealed. Kansas City's E. J. Holub still limps after a record 12 knee operations. After four operations and an abrupt retirement from the San Diego Chargers, Kevin Hardy, then 29, told The Washington Post in 1974 that he experienced almost constant pain, could not run, could not enjoy a round of golf without a cart, could not join his non-football-playing friends skiing or playing tennis or frolicking with their sons. He said he had truly learned "what all those coaches meant when they said you had to pay the price."
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.
But left to their own devices, coaches are not likely to go off at all. How many ribs were crushed and spleens ruptured before spearing was disallowed? How many more will go before the helmet is legislated out of the hit business entirely? How many ligaments were torn before crackback blocks were outlawed, and how many more will go before all downfield blocking below the waist is eliminated?
Given the growing prospects of intervention by the courts, coaches can no longer afford to ignore medical evidence. To paraphrase Dr. Clancy, "We're not coaches, but they're not doctors, either." The rules of football are not immutable. The administration of any game has as its first tenet of rule-making the question: Is it safe for those who play it? To keep a sport healthy as well as attractive, the definition of what is "legal" often has to be based on what is "necessary." In light of the medical evidence, the growing number of liability suits and the soaring cost of insurance, the following "necessities" should be examined.
Is it necessary to block any player below the waist on any downfield play?
Former Coach of the Year Ara Parseghian doesn't think so. Parseghian says below-the-waist blocks outside the legal clipping zone—four yards on either side of the center, three yards on either side of the line of scrimmage—are not necessary at all. "On any play where there's a scramble of 22 men," he says, "blindside hits and unprotected hits on knees occur." Florida Coach Doug Dickey thinks that, anyway, the more effective block in that circumstance is "the one where you go through your man, not down at his knees." In January of 1977 the American Football Coaches Association recommended a ban on below-the-waist blocks, but the proposal was overwhelmingly defeated by the NCAA Rules Committee. The NFL has no formal proposals on such a rule change under consideration.
Is the chop block necessary?
No, says Corso. No, says Dickey. No, say Parseghian, Royal and Washington's Don James. No, says Wisconsin Middle Guard Dan Relich. No, no, no.
The rollup block, in which an offensive lineman "rolls" up the back of a defender's legs, is similar in concept. It also is not necessary.
Is it necessary for a third, and even a fourth, 260-pound lineman to help two other 260-pounders put away a ballcarrier when he's already trapped or on the way down?
Norm Evans, the veteran Seattle Sea-hawk offensive tackle and All-Pro, thinks not. Evans is "bugged" by all the piling on he sees in football, the redundant hits on ballcarriers and quarterbacks. He thinks a greater burden should be put on defensive players to make them more aware of the obvious. Should they not know that when they deliver that extra blow they might be doing unnecessary harm? That because they're in the neighborhood doesn't mean they have to crash the party? Should they not be as aware of bounds markers as offensive players? Would it be too much to ask that they realize the ballcarrier is going out of bounds anyway and that it is not necessary to ride him another five yards out?
Late, redundant hits go hand in glove with gang tackling, a tactic spawned by Southern college coaches years ago and given widespread respectability under the euphemism "pursuit." Pursuit is an incontrovertible virtue of defense. The trouble with pursuit is that it often translates into vicious finishing-off blows on backs whose momentum has already been stopped. Contrary to popular belief, the whistle does not have to be blown to signify a player is down. The whistle is to alert everybody that the play is over, not to signify that a ballcarrier's momentum has been stopped.
Once gang tackling became widespread, it was increasingly difficult to distinguish late hits and piling on from momentum. Coaches teach getting to the ball; officials know that. Too often, says San Diego State Trainer Bob Moore, the late hit is regarded as "a sign of team defense instead of a potentially dangerous act of overaggression."
The game, says Moore, is "wrapped up emotionally" in these tactics. "Combine that with officials not calling the late hits, and you have a dangerous situation. The injury does not always happen then. It takes a toll later on—the aspect of prolonged punishment. A player who has been hit head-on for three quarters might try to make an unusual dodge late in the game, take a clumsy step, get hit awkwardly and tear up a knee. I've seen it happen. All this could have started with a piling on early in the game."
Woody Hayes once said that a player good enough to make the Ohio State team "is good enough to change directions in midair." When John Ray was defensive coach at Notre Dame, he said that players like Alan Page, "as good as they are today, can be taught anything—to stop on a dime if you tell them." That being the case, would it be politic to ask them to do exactly that—to turn away from a pileup, to resist taking the "free shot" that momentum allows?
Is it necessary for a defensive player to unload on a receiver when it is obvious the ball is overthrown?
The colleges now have a rule against this practice, making the defender responsible for knowing where the ball is. The pros don't.
Is it necessary to tackle players who don't have the ball, just because they might get it?
Lou Holtz of Arkansas can tell you why he doesn't think so, although this is a favored tactic in the college game, where blindside hits on trailbacks in the option play are allowed. Indeed, the accepted defense against the wishbone or veer is to wipe out the quarterback on every play, whether he keeps the ball or not, and blindside the trailback before he gets it.
"It's legal," says Holtz, "but it's not ethical."
Is it necessary? If you are a defensive coach having to face an Alabama or Oklahoma wishbone, you might say yes, but Doug Dickey says there's another way. He thinks a defensive player responsible for the trailback can play the option as he would cover a pass receiver: go for the pitch if you wish, but if you play the man, just establish your ground until he gets the ball. If he runs into you beforehand, that's his fault. "There's no need to hit the pitch man on every play. Look at it from his standpoint. How would a linebacker like being blindsided time after time, sometimes when the play is past him?"
Is any blow to the head necessary?
Dubious helmet use in blocking and tackling was covered in Part I of this series, but the head is open to other needless attacks. Clubbing, the forearm blow to the neck, has been outlawed in colleges since 1949, but vestiges of it are still around. Fred Akers, the Texas coach, says he "cringes" when he sees rival teams come on the field "with their arms taped to the elbows. I know it's going to be a long day. You should see some of the forearms [hits] we get on ballcarriers, frame by frame. It makes you want to throw up."
In its most virulent expression (the Atkinson and Morgan cases), clubbing has been "cracked down on" in the NFL, according to McNally, but Tom Landry still sees it happening. "They should call a penalty for every blow to a player's head," the Cowboy coach says. "If officials don't stop it," says his assistant, Ermal Allen, "some Sunday some ballcarrier or receiver is going to lose his life."
The overall picture is clear: the rules of the game do not protect the players. The rules are not always "fair" to both parties in the more than 2,000 separate one-on-one hits that are made in the course of a normal football game. The rules need revision. So, it would seem, does the degree of punishment.
John Unitas says the easiest way to stop the foul play of the more brutal players is to "throw them out of the game. That would cure it." Doug Plank, although perhaps an unlikely advocate, agrees. "It would be like enforcing the death penalty," he says. "Right now you practically have to hit somebody on the back and trample on his head to get thrown out. If an official came up [and warned me what would happen] I might not like it, but I'd make darn sure that whatever he was watching [out for] I didn't do in that game."
But what good is a 15-yard penalty for clipping if your player is on his back with a torn knee? Herman Rohrig, the Big Ten's supervisor of officials, says, "We have to impress on players and coaches that football is not an exercise in annihilation." Coaches get more safety conscious when it costs them 15 yards. A way to impress them further might be a 20-yard penalty. Would a player think twice before aiming a forearm at someone's neck if he knew it would cost his team 20 yards—or even 30? Would a 30-yard penalty make a coach more conscious of his humanity?
Would the following be likely to happen this coming New Year's Day? In 1965 Texas played Alabama in the Orange Bowl. It was the last college game for the Tide's Joe Namath. He had just come off knee surgery. Bear Bryant tells how Darrell Royal warned his Texas players before the game, "If anybody hits Namath's knee, he's on the bench. We'll win without that." Namath lasted the game and came within a foot of a touchdown that would have beaten Texas in the last minute.
In commenting on the current atmosphere, Royal, who is now Texas' athletic director, says, "So-and-so [coach of a rival team] was showing films on his highlight show last season. He came to a really vicious hit on a player. The player's helmet flew off. So-and-so laughed, and ran it again."
Such attitudes become license, says Royal. License leads to injury. It begins with the simplest unsportsmanlike acts, acts that are sanctioned by their toleration. What Stanford Coach Bill Walsh calls "the theatrics of the game. Standing over an injured player and using profane language. Pointing to a beaten cornerback after catching a pass. Tactics intended to diminish or physically hurt players. Fifteen or 20 years ago, you could name one or two dirty players on a team. Now there's continuous talking, insults and, before you know it, a clothesline from behind. Or a tackle on a player who is helpless, or when he doesn't expect to be hit without the ball."
Such play not only psychs the crowd to demand more theatrics, says Royal, but acts as a career boost for the perpetrators. "We glamorize hoodlums, the guys who foul and hold. The worst examples of sportsmanship become our heroes. The way Conrad Dobler plays is nothing to emulate."
College people tend to blame the pros for the spread of these aberrations. They are probably not far wrong. SEC Referee Pete Williams says he is appalled by what he sees passing for sportsmanship in the NFL. "Everybody says football is a violent game. It wasn't meant to be. It was meant to be a game of skill and speed and physical prowess. It has become a violent game. A game of intimidation. I watch the pros and it makes me sick. A guy is going down, a 260-pounder hits him anyway. Receivers are clobbered to 'make 'em think.' The hay-hook, the hammer, the clothesline—those things were coined by the pros, and they get copied."
Gene Calhoun of the Big Ten sees these "influences" filtering down rapidly. "I don't think it stops at the college level," he says. "It filters all the way down. There's a high school coach in our area who has a Hitter of the Week award. He puts a picture of his most vicious tackier on a wall."
Plank blames his own notoriety on the permissiveness of play in the pros. "The professional game is less controlled," says Plank. "[As a result] in some games there's an outright bad feeling between players. I don't think most of us in college [Plank played at Ohio State] could have gotten away with the kinds of hits I make now.
"The thing that really shocked me [in the NFL] was the way players talked to officials. The language. That just wasn't tolerated in college football. Officials were held in much higher respect. I think that would be one good thing to re-institute into the game: respect for officials. But if the rules aren't enforced, how can you?"
There is more than passing concern in football that the breakdown in sportsmanship that promotes injury is at least partly traceable to the failing respect for those who officiate the game. NFL officials earn as much as $17,000 a year (at a rate of $325 to $800 a game) in part-time employment. Their counterparts in college believe trouble lurks when such a handsome subsidy becomes built into a way of life, making an individual vulnerable, even acquiescent to abuse. College officials don't usually "need" the $150 to $250 a game they get in the major conferences. Williams, an engineer, says, "Half the officials in the SEC probably make more than the presidents of the schools [whose games they officiate]." But of the NFL officials, Gene Calhoun says, "I suspect that you can get pretty dependent on $17,000 a year."
The implication is clear enough: NFL officials are willing to put up with more. Says one coach, "As you progress up the ladder from high school to college to pro, you see officials grow more liberal in their interpretation of the rules, and that is a dangerous thing."
Players obviously sense this. Once they know the cops won't shoot, the looting begins for real. The most prominent recent example of the disrespectful player is Pittsburgh's Mean Joe Greene. NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle says Greene is not mean at all but really a swell fellow. But Greene keeps making him out a liar. Not caring for some calls made against him in a game with the Colts last year, Mean Joe was quoted in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette as saying, "Given half the chance, I'll punch one of them [officials] out, and it'd give me a whole lot of satisfaction." He said if they got in his way he'd "cleat 'em in the spine. I won't go around them." He said he was "on a crusade against the striped shirts, and I will be until I get out of this game." The NFL did not take him out of the game for this threat. It merely fined him.
Greene was fined again last season for his punching episodes against the Denver Broncos, when he said he was merely going "outside the law" to get justice.
Players and coaches seeking justice in this manner may get more than they bargain for, says Calhoun. They may be promoting an atmosphere made to order for a disastrous consequence. "An NFL official [Armen Terzian] got conked by a whiskey bottle in a game at Minnesota three years ago. It knocked him out," says Calhoun. "It could have killed him. Even after the game the Minnesota coaches were still complaining about the officiating and the bad calls, and officials who 'blew it.' Well, is that an excuse for violence? It would have cost the NFL a bundle in lawyers' fees alone just to defend itself if that guy had been badly hurt.
"There's a time and place to criticize officials. If they're bad, they deserve to be criticized. That's why we have meetings and review films. But on the field is no place to go crazy. I tell coaches, protest, sure, if you have a gripe. But do it right. Blow your damn stack, do something outside the scope of your authority, and you are very likely to find yourself individually liable. Outside the protection of the school, outside the protection of the conference. Go ahead and berate officials. Incite the crowd. Start a riot. But when the damages are counted, you may lose everything you worked for, and face the possibility of a criminal charge as well."
The spread of unsportsmanlike conduct is insidious—from athletes flouting the spirit of good sportsmanship by turning end zones into discothèques, to the blatant acts of malice everyone condemns. It begins, says Doug Dickey, "when you make up your mind you're going to be uglier in order to win. Don't just put the guy on the ground, shove him around, rough him up, talk to him, verbally abuse him. Intimidate him." It amounts to a studied disregard for the other fellow. It amounts to getting away with things and taking advantage. If an offensive lineman moves prematurely, thereby legally drawing you offside, take a free shot at him. Put him on his pants. Really rip him.
Last fall, two separate but similar messages went out to professional and college coaches. One, from Pete Rozelle, warned that playing-field viciousness and misconduct "do not belong in professional football" and would bring "disciplinary action." The other, from Davey Nelson, said that some of the tactics being practiced were "humiliating college football." Nelson said the "football code and rules governing unsportsmanlike conduct are being ignored by players, coaches and officials." He said there was no place in college football for maneuvers "deliberately designed to inflict injury."
Coach Wayne Hardin of Temple said he saw more dirty football last fall than he had seen in years—"guys throwing elbows, a guy sticking a helmet in the middle of another guy's back. I saw Michigan playing a team, up by a big score, and send in a guy, and three plays from the end he really clocked this guy with his elbow. He wasn't even involved in the play. On the last play of the game he tried to do the same thing to another player, but missed."
Coaches allow those things. They are a "coach's problem" instead of a "player's problem" or a "commissioner's problem" because football is a coach's game. If coaches do not teach good sportsmanship, they must be responsible for the acts of bad sportsmen.
Bad sportsmanship, whether it is manifest in a gesture or a blow, is a malignancy, spreading from within and corrupting the whole. The complaining party at the bar is football itself. The men who defile it are responsible for their acts as surely as the blow to the face is responsible for the fractured jaw. Football becomes what it does. You cannot peel away the acts of unsportsmanlike conduct like the leaves of an artichoke, hoping to find a pure heart. The rot outside is an extension of the rot at the core.
For the modern football player the path to victory is a series of semi-pleasurable bumps and knocks, punctuated by long periods of utter drudgery and moments of euphoria that will brighten a lifetime in their reliving. The best of coaches are taskmasters and demand only what they would do themselves. But if a player is immersed in a philosophy of rule-bending, if he is being taught techniques that cause injury—to others or himself—he has a right to know:
Is this what is necessary for the good of the game?
Of all the ill-begotten, ill-advised apologies for the plague of injuries in football, none beats the one about quarterbacks.
The quarterback is at once the most esteemed and assailed of football players. As the game's foremost expression of skill and leadership, he can aspire to be a campus king, and a quarter-million-dollar-a-year pro. But he must pay for this status. He is a likely (if not logical) focal point of fan abuse when his team loses and, as he goes about his business, the recipient of some of the most conspicuous acts of savagery the grand old game can muster.
This is as it should be, the apology goes. Football is the ultimate he-man's game. Football does not coddle gifted players. Quarterbacks are particularly gifted players and should not expect special handling. Thus: 1) the quarterback when injured is merely getting his fair share of the lumps, and 2) nothing can be done about it because if you tried you would "hurt the game."
Some good and sensible men subscribe to this foolishness. Even those who know the lumps firsthand.
After being hit by Houston Oiler Defensive End Elvin Bethea last season, Pittsburgh Quarterback Terry Bradshaw managed to escape with only a fractured navicular bone in his left wrist. When Bradshaw got up, he was a magnanimous casualty. He said he didn't think they could do any more to protect the quarterback "without taking something away from the game."
"Take away" from football? How ironic a choice of words.
Here is a sample of what was "taken away" from football in 1977 because of that kind of talk.
In the first televised college game of the season, Pittsburgh Quarterback Matt Cavanaugh, a prime Heisman Trophy candidate, was buried by Notre Dame Defensive End Willie Fry just as he released a second-period touchdown pass. Forced backward under Fry's 242 pounds, Cavanaugh put his left hand back to brace his imminent fall and snapped his wrist. Goodby Heisman.
On the first Saturday of play, half the teams in the Big Eight lost their starting quarterbacks. One other Big Eight quarterback was playing hurt with a practice injury.
By midseason, eight starting Southwest Conference quarterbacks had been put out of commission. Texas was down to a fourth stringer as it held desperately to the No. 1 ranking. The Longhorns had lost two quarterbacks in one game—in the same quarter.
Georgia, suffering its first losing season in 14 years under Vince Dooley, was down to its fourth quarterback by the time it got to Georgia Tech for the final game. In that one, No. 4 sprained an ankle and No. 5, a freshman, dislocated a fibula. Dooley finished up with another freshman who had been a reserve on the junior varsity.
Almost every potential All-America quarterback was injured in 1977. Besides Cavanaugh, Houston's Danny Davis, Stanford's Guy Benjamin, Texas Tech's Rodney Allison, Brigham Young's Gifford Nielsen and Harvard's Tim Davenport all went down for varying periods. But that was child's play compared with what the pros were dishing out.
On a memorable Sunday in November, Fran Tarkenton of Minnesota, who had never had a serious injury, spun away from a rush on a busted play and was submerged by Cincinnati's Gary Burley. Tarkenton's ankle snapped. On that very same "day at the butcher shop," as one press dispatch called it, James Harris of San Diego was helped off the field with a sprained ankle, Bill Munson of San Diego with a fractured leg, Brian Sipe of Cleveland with a shoulder injury, Lynn Dickey of Green Bay with a broken leg, and Bradshaw with a shoulder injury to go with his dented wrist.
At one point, 20 quarterbacks in the 28-team NFL had suffered incapacitating injuries. In addition to the above, Jim Zorn, Richard Todd, Ken Anderson, Dan Pastorini, Billy Kilmer, Steve Bartkowski and Joe Namath were sidelined. Tampa Bay, the league's worst team, was also its hardest hit: four starting quarterbacks lost to injury.
The Stanford Research Institute's computer work-up for the NFL indicated that of players on offense quarterbacks were the second most likely (behind running backs) players to suffer injury. A preliminary study of 1,002 high school and college players, to be updated this year by the National Athletic Injury/Illness Reporting System, was even more damning. Adjusted to the number of players per position, the NAIRS study indicated that quarterbacks suffered one-seventh of all "significant injuries" (those that cost game time).
As doleful figures go, those would seem a stiff enough price to pay for being sure quarterbacks are not "coddled." Not everyone believes you would "take something from the game" by providing quarterbacks more protection within the rules—protection not against the normal risks of a physical sport, but against legal loopholes and dubious ethics that have allowed a twisted rationale to spread in the game.
Oakland Coach John Madden is a non-believer. Madden rages against rules that have allowed the quarterback to become "not only our most valuable player, but our most vulnerable. We protect our kickers with good rules. You can't run into a kicker legally unless you also block the kick. But you can run into a quarterback anytime after he throws the ball, as long as the referee thinks you were in the act before the ball was thrown. That doesn't make sense to me. It doesn't make sense to protect the kickers more than the quarterbacks."
John Pont, the former Yale, Northwestern and Indiana coach, is not convinced either. Pont wonders about a "new mentality" of coaching where "you make the quarterback the target and kick the hell out of him, whether he has the ball or not."
And neither is at least one quarterback, Seattle's Zorn. "If I don't have the ball," he says, "I sure don't want to get knocked on my tail." Zorn has been in the NFL only a couple of years, so his verbal indiscretions can be excused. He is not, however, unscarred. He suffered a broken cheekbone in 1976 when he "stepped up to throw and at the same time a guy rushing in hit me in the face with his helmet."
Through the years there have been other such heretics, unwilling to concede these batterings as quid pro quo. Jack Nix, a Santa Ana, Calif. insurance man who played end for the San Francisco 49ers and refereed in the NFL for 10 years, remembers Quarterback Frankie Albert giving opposing linemen sales talks on the subject. "He'd scream at 'em, 'Don't hit me like that! It's stupid! You put me out of the game and you're cutting your own paycheck! People come to see me play!' "
Nix is one of those radical thinkers who believe the open season on quarterbacks today is the worst kind of hoax because it is self-inflicted—a cream pie that football is throwing in its own face. The hoax is complicated, however. It begins with the premise most coaches and players swallow willingly: that a quarterback is just one of 22 men on the field, protected in the same way by the same tidy rules. That is logical, but that is also nonsense.
There are, to begin with, unmistakable physical inequities. Football players have changed markedly since World War II. Everybody is bigger, for sure, but intense weight-lifting programs, in many instances augmented by chemicals, and various strength machines have bulwarked the muscle positions—defensive and offensive linemen, linebackers—with men who are not only bigger but infinitely stronger. Quarterbacks don't lift weights. Coaches make them stop when the season starts, says Bill Yeoman of Houston, "so it won't affect their throwing motion. Linemen, of course, never stop."
The consequence of all this is that what used to be a fairly minor weight differential has grown radically; the quarterback now stands out in every team picture as the one who looks underfed. The Missouri team that played Georgia Tech in the 1940 Orange Bowl had a backfield that averaged 180 pounds—and a line that averaged 189. Wallace Wade's 1926 Alabama Rose Bowl team had an interior line that averaged 195. Fifty years later, Pittsburgh's interior line in the Sugar Bowl averaged 237.
In the last 15 years, the weight of All-America interior linemen has risen an average of 1.3 pounds per year, while backs' weights have stayed about the same. The NCAA estimates that the average interior linemen will be 38% larger than all other players by the year 2000—and considerably more than that when compared to quarterbacks.
The contrast in the pros is even greater. Pat Haden of the Rams weighs 182 pounds. When he goes against the Dallas front four, he faces one 270-pounder in Ed Jones, 255-pound Jethro Pugh and two 250-pounders in Harvey Martin and Randy White.
The laws of physics still apply. Force = mass X acceleration: F = MA. As the well-conditioned athlete grows, his capacity for meting out punishment multiplies proportionately, and the athlete whose size remains almost constant is at that much more of a disadvantage. And remember, says Tennessee Coach Johnny Majors, the 265-pounder "used to be fat and slow. Now he's fast. In some cases, faster than the quarterback. That means he can deliver a terrific blow." It figures that if both M and A are greater, then F—what hurts—must have increased. The difference in footpounds, in blows delivered by a 270-pounder and a 170-pounder traveling at the same rate of speed, is roughly 60%.
The more disproportionate the blow, the more likely the injury. Dr. Fred All-man studied 43,000 Pop Warner Leaguers at the Atlanta Sports Medicine Clinic and found that the injury rate among football players of similar height and weight and skill was "very low." A study made by Dr. Carl Blyth at the University of North Carolina showed that injuries increased proportionately with age, as disproportions widened. At age 13, 25% of the players surveyed had suffered injuries. At 14, the injury percentage went up to 28 and advanced dramatically from there until, at 18, there was a 68% injury factor.
Doug Plank of the Bears is a likely source of testimony, being a notorious quarterback-buster. Plank calls it "a complete mismatch. On the one hand," he says, "you have an offensive player who really isn't conditioned to take hard hits—and maybe doesn't really know how to take them, or to fall." On the other, you have "defensive linemen coming in who are usually in great shape, are quick, agile and weigh 250 and above. Any time they hit someone who isn't built like themselves, they're going to do some damage."
Does this mean "bigger" players should not be allowed to tackle quarterbacks? Of course not. But the disadvantage of an overwhelming size differential dovetails with other, largely overlooked, factors that increase the risks.
Contrary to Plank's evaluation, the quarterback's main problem is not that he does not know how to take a hit, but that he is expected to take hits no other player is asked to take. A linebacker does not get "sacked" by three 250-pound quarterbacks while he is stumbling backwards. Quarterbacks are expected to be immune to pressure. If they do not stand in a disintegrating pocket, waiting until the last split second for a receiver to work free, and then release a perfect spiral just before the cave-in, they are said to "hear footsteps."
Compassion does not come with appreciation of this one-sided state of affairs. When he put 200-pound Tampa Bay Quarterback Mike Boryla in the hospital with torn knee ligaments last season, 280-pound Green Bay Tackle Mike McCoy was asked if he felt bad. "No," he said. "It sounds cold, doesn't it? But I didn't feel sorry for the guy. I've never felt guilty about things like that."
Well, why should he? McCoy was only doing his job in the accepted way. Coaches teach "Get the quarterback." Coaches want rival quarterbacks to "hear footsteps." Quarterbacks under duress make mistakes. Coaches shriek with pleasure when game films show a particularly heavy hit on a quarterback. They award decals to put on helmets for such feats in college, and in the NFL they keep statistics on "sacks" and give out bonuses.
A crackdown on late and redundant hits has been under way in the NFL, according to Art McNally. He instructs his referees to call out when a pass is gone to let charging offenders know the quarterback is no longer fair game. But in 1977 only 47 roughing-the-passer penalties were called in the NFL, compared with 43 in 1976. By the same token, coaches certainly do not encourage "late hits." A late hit means a 15-yard penalty. Coaches would rather have an abscess than a 15-yard penalty.
But what, really, is a late hit?
The rules make broad allowances for "momentum" in tackling. Some coaches now believe that may be the rule book's single biggest flaw. Many brutal hits on quarterbacks and running backs are excused under the vagaries of "momentum." Many hits are not tackles at all but vicious exclamation points. Even quarterbacks are conditioned to excuse them.
"Defensive linemen are brought up to rush the quarterback," says Matt Cavanaugh. "That's what they've been trained to do since they started playing football. They can't stop [a charge] the instant the" quarterback releases the ball.... Most of the problems come once the momentum is up and the lineman can't pull back, and I don't think it's possible to take that out of the game. I don't think it's possible to change the rules. You can't do that and be fair about it."
Fair? Can't stop? Impossible to change? Conditioning is complete when the street victim sympathizes with the mugger.
But can "momentum" be legislated against?
John Madden thinks so. "Why not? We tell a guy he can't plow into the kicker, we can sure as hell tell him he can't plow into the passer."
Coaches who argue against equal protection under the rule, however, say a quarterback is more likely to run than a punter—and is usually better at it—and therefore can't be made sacrosanct. Coaches don't want to give quarterbacks license to steal.
But what is really being served by allowing for "momentum," and to what actual purpose is that momentum built up? Pete Williams was a Navy halfback in the late '40s, when he was known as Pistol Pete. Williams says any schoolyard dodger knows that the tougher man to elude is not the one who has built up momentum, but the one who is in control and not fully committed to the charge. A defender rushing headlong at a ballcarrier is in much the same position as a bull rushing a matador and is just as likely to get the runaround.
Says Jack Nix, "Maybe we've bragged too long about the 'killer instinct' and made everybody think it's the only way. Hit hard, sure. Body contact, sure. But common sense should tell us we're hurting more than just a quarterback when we put him in the hospital. Is that the way we want to win?"
If coaches are willing to say no to that question, it is not as difficult to solve the dilemma as some think. However, you must be willing to assume certain things. First, that most defensive players can see. If they can see, they can be made to do things. Every coach boasts that defensive players are better than ever—bigger, faster, more gifted. That being the case, says Ara Parseghian, and acknowledging the fact that a defender advancing with more caution in the manner of a screening basketball player is less likely to get fooled, a "grab" rule might be put into effect for quarterbacks, at least on a trial basis. If the defender gets there and the quarterback still has the ball, the defender has the same tackling rights as he has in regard to the kicker before the ball is off the ground: no holds barred. "But if the ball is gone," says Parseghian, "and the defender has got his head up instead of down in that ramming position, he can see enough to hold up and just grab the quarterback. A grab is a lot less likely to break a rib."
For those rushers who still find it difficult to tell whether the quarterback has the ball or not, John Madden would add a "visual" aid: he would equip referees with special air horns to sound when—and only when—a pass has been released.
A tenet of rule-making is that if a rule puts a player at a disadvantage, it has to be changed. The question of what is "fair" is, ultimately, a rules problem. A rule to protect quarterbacks the way kickers are protected would not be difficult to write. But granting the quarterback's added potential, a "grab" rule would be more appropriate. Such a rule might also help mitigate the damage being done to high school and college quarterbacks on option plays.
The option presents a thornier problem, however. In its many forms and formations (veer, wishbone), it is probably the most difficult play to stop in college football—but it requires that the quarterback be a runner and therefore puts him in greater jeopardy. This is why pro teams haven't adopted the veer.
The evolution of defending against the option has passed through many nuances, but one gambit is now consistently applied: keep the quarterback an east-and-west runner, don't let him turn upfield and become north-south. And, as stated elsewhere in this article, tackle him on every play—before, as, or after he releases the ball. Hit him. Be aggressive. Lower the boom.
The night before last year's Ohio State game, Oklahoma defensive coordinator Larry Lacewell reportedly promised that the Sooners would "make Rod Gerald get up on every play." Nothing malicious was implied, just some good old down-home strategy to stop the slick Buckeye quarterback. Oklahoma pounded away at Gerald, a six-foot, 175-pound string bean. The battered Gerald was taken out in the third quarter, and Oklahoma won the game.
The quarterback's relatively unprotected moves make him as vulnerable on an option play as on a pass play. He comes to the point of the pitch with his eyes at least partially averted to the trailback, his arm, or arms, extended, his feet committed. If he executes well, he will draw a tackier, which is the whole idea. But in that position he is wide open for trouble from his chin to his thorax to his knees. Trouble comes in the form of a 225-pound linebacker with fire in his eyes and an artillery shell on his head and a signed release from his coach to let his frustrations go on option quarterbacks. If the quarterback is put out of commission, so be it. Give that man another decal.
It is obvious to the most casual observer when a defense has been sent out to destroy a target, says John Pont. "Officials could call it," he says, "just as any good athlete could be made to back off a little. Coaches should look closer at game films. Some of the hits on the quarterbacks after a pitch are brutal. But one coach teaches it, the next coach does it. It's one-upmanship. Somebody has to say, 'Hey, wait a minute, there's a difference between a tackle and finishing off a guy.' "
It would seem a simple enough equation to work out: coaches and officials acting together to decide what is "necessary" in football. But the deeper issue is sportsmanship. Bad sportsmanship is always shameful. In a sport that has an inherently high potential for physical damage, it is intolerable. When a coach plots the incapacitation of a player, it is profanity to call him a sportsman.
A certain amount of concentrated effort against a star player is acceptable in sport: guard him relentlessly, double-team him, pitch to him a certain way, shift or zone the defense for him, neutralize him. But "concentrated effort" is not license to indulge in perversions of the rules.
The line is crossed with the first deliberate attempt to hurt or weaken an opposing player.
The use of amphetamines, which results in more injuries, is investigated, and several proposals are put forth to restore sanity to the game of football.