Dogged by costly injuries to law enforcement officers, poor attendance and a variety of other problems, the annual Cop'er Bowl football game is in danger of being canceled.
Sheriff's deputies who have been injured playing football have won what could amount to an estimated $1.5 million in compensation benefits, according to county records.
The fate of the charity game, a traditional grudge match between the San Diego Police Department and the San Diego County Sheriff's Department since 1977, is expected to be determined next month by police officers and deputy sheriffs who sit on the Cop'er Bowl committee.
San Diego Police Chief Bill Kolender said he has recommended that the game be discontinued because the practices disrupt the officers' police work.
The Cop'er Bowl "has had its best days and maybe we should quit while we're ahead," added Assistant Police Chief Bob Burgreen.
'Playing Out String'
"During the early years of the Cop'er Bowl, we were fairly enthusiastic supporters of it. We felt the monies were going to a good cause and it provided an esprit de corps in the Police Department . . . The longer we're in the business, the more we know we are playing out the string as far as the probability of serious injuries to our officers. Football is a violent sport. If this was a softball game or a basketball game, we wouldn't have these concerns. . . .
"There's no sense in continuing it out."
Football injuries to sheriff's deputies have cost the County of San Diego substantially more in benefits than the nearly $500,000 in contributions the games have raised for youth organizations over the last 11 years. A total of 84 deputies, many of whom were injured during practices for the first 10 Cop'er Bowl games, have received $433,000 in worker's compensation benefits, according to county records.
In addition, two deputies incurred injuries serious enough to end their law enforcement careers. They could receive as much as $1 million in combined disability retirement benefits if each lives into their 70s.
Deputies also receive their full salary for any work missed while they recover from any football injuries. The Sheriff's Department was unable to provide an estimate of the thousands of dollars in salaries that have been paid to deputies who missed work due to football injuries.
"This is a concern of mine because very frankly it isn't right," said County Supervisor George Bailey. " . . . even though the charity aspect is very nice, if it is costing the public money, it shouldn't be happening. . . . I don't think it is fair to the public if they are not at least breaking even on this deal."
The San Diego Police Department has not paid a penny to police officers who have been injured in practice or during games.
"We tell our officers that you are on your own if you get out there and get hurt," Burgreen said. "It is not an on-duty injury. You will have to use sick leave, not injury leave, and you won't be eligible for retirement benefits if you get hurt. We have officers sign forms acknowledging those things."
Sheriff John Duffy, a strong supporter of the Cop'er Bowl who encourages his deputies to participate in the game, has taken a different approach. He believes that deputies injured in the game deserve to be compensated, according to county officials.
The County Charter does not allow anyone in county government to require Duffy to make his deputies sign waiver forms before competing in the Cop'er Bowl.
"The police chief is not an elected official . . . he is an employee," Bailey said. "The sheriff, of course, is an employee but we have no control over hiring and firing and what he says and what he promises to his people."
Duffy, who was out of town part of last week, received a message that The Times was preparing a story on the Cop'er Bowl, according to his secretary, but declined to return calls. Sheriff's spokesman Lt. John Tenwolde said that no one else in the sheriff's office was willing to speak for Duffy or the department.
Stan Forsythe, the county risk and benefits manager, said that several years ago his office contested the payment of any benefits to deputies who were injured playing football. But the county lost five consecutive cases before the state Worker's Compensation Appeals Board because the deputies were able to show that Duffy had supported the game and urged them to play, Forsythe said.
"We felt it was an off-duty, non-work-related activity," Forsythe said. "We didn't hire these guys to be athletes. They were hired to be police officers.
"We have done what we could in the past to reduce that exposure and were unable to do so. So right now we're in a position of paying them. As long as the game goes on and as long as they keep getting hurt, we will go on paying them."
Other Bowl Problems