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Equipment Playing Bigger, Costlier Role : Fear of Lawsuits Has Schools Scrambling for Added Protection

September 17, 1987|GARY KLEIN | Times Staff Writer

A few weeks ago, before his team took the field for the first fall practice in helmets and pads, Crespi High football Coach Bill Redell stood before his players and issued this warning:

"You may be permanently injured or even killed playing football."

As the season begins, coaches across the country will make similar announcements, and school officials might be there to note the date, time and place.

The possibility of multimillion-dollar liability suits stemming from injury or death has coaches and administrators scrambling for protection.

"When an injury occurs, everyone's first reaction is to sue everyone else," said Richard Feldman, an attorney with Product Liability-Sports, a national organization that has begun lobbying for legislative reform in sporting-goods liability.

Last February, a former Florida high school player paralyzed from a 1981 injury reached a settlement with Riddell Co.--the country's largest helmet manufacturer--that may award him as much as $14 million during his lifetime.

In 1982, in a case brought against a school district in Seattle, the court found that the plaintiff was entitled to damages because he hadn't been adequately warned that he could become permanently disabled playing football.

"I call it a trend in the direction of informed consent, which is very similar to what happened in medical malpractice," said Rick Ball, a former lawyer from Phoenix who specializes in risk management consulting related to sports injuries. "When you obtain consent of parents and athletes, you must give complete information or it's not considered to be informed consent.

"A very commonplace claim by parents involved in lawsuits is 'I didn't know this could happen in sports. If I had known this could happen, I never would have let my child participate.' "

Some schools now require parents and players to sign a detailed form indicating they understand the risk of injury in football. Others have mandatory preseason meetings where parents and players are shown videotapes that discuss fatal and catastrophic injuries.

Fred Mueller, director of the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research in Chapel Hill, N. C., said there have been 53 high school fatalities related to football since 1977 and 78 permanent cervical cord injuries. In addition, there have been 10 permanent cerebral injuries in the past three years.

"These types of injuries are down," said Mueller, who added that the figures for permanently disabling injuries ranged between 25 and 30 a year in the early '70s.

In 1985, there were four deaths. A year later there were 11, eight resulting from head injuries and one from a neck injury, Mueller said. Last year was the first time since 1976--when there were 15 fatalities--that the national death figure has exceeded 10.

"We're just hoping it was an off year and will come back down to the previous level," Mueller said.

Coaches and manufacturers say football players have minimized the risk by learning proper techniques. Today's athletes also have safer equipment, but there's a high price to play.

It costs an average of $400 to equip high school players, $550 for college players. Outfitting players ranges from $200 in youth leagues to $1,000 in the NFL.

Officials at USC and UCLA said they spend about $120,000 a year on equipment.

Cal State Northridge and Cal Lutheran, which compete at the Division II level and spend about $15,000 each, have fewer players and less duplicate equipment than Division I schools. UCLA supplies about 100 players with four pairs of shoes and different helmets for games and practices. Northridge outfits 65 players with two pairs of shoes and one helmet.

Junior college and high school coaches wrestle with budgets that have not kept up with increasing equipment costs, particularly for purchasing and maintaining helmets.

Paul Dunham, Moorpark College athletic director, said that in 1969 the school paid its football coach $12,000 and budgeted $5,000 for equipment. Since then, he said, salaries have tripled, but equipment allocations have remained the same.

Few high school budgets would be adequate without booster club support. School-allocated funds for equipment range from about $2,000 at Westlake to $11,000 at Crespi.

"When I started coaching as an assistant at Thousand Oaks High in 1970, the booster club was just for frills like pregame meals and that sort of thing," Westlake Coach George Contreras said. "Now they're fund-raising the basics.

"The school districts seem to have the feeling that if they cut back, the booster clubs will cover us."

Claremont Coach Bob Baiz, whose teams have made the playoffs seven times in eight years, has an equipment budget of $3,000. "We could not get by without the booster club and fund raising," he said.

It is generally understood that the cost of replacing equipment is the biggest financial problem for a program to tackle each year.

Palisades Coach Jack Epstein said he paid $20 each for helmets in 1966. In 1978, Westlake paid $45, Contreras said.

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