"Who's to determine what's dirty in a contact sport?" asked George Atkinson, who along with Mel Blount, is listed as a so-called "criminal" on a blackboard in a San Francisco courtroom.
Atkinson of the Oakland Raiders and Blount of the Pittsburgh Steelers, two puzzled defensive backs were interviewed this week by The Washington Post concerning the unprecedented National Football League controversy whirling around them.
Atkinson brought the case to court, suing Steeler coach Chuck Noll for $1 million for comments Noll made after a September 1976, game in which Atkinson belted Pittsburgh receiver Lynn Swann in the back of the head, giving him a concussion. Noll referred to Atkinson, a nine-year veteran, at his postgame press conference as part of a "criminal element" he would like to see expelied from the league.
The Steelers have filed a counter suit against Atkinson, alleging he was part of conspiracy "to disable and intimidate Lynn Swann."
On the witness stand last week, Noll was shown films of his own players in action, and said some of their maneuvers fell into the same category of alleged brutality as Atkinson's. With each new admission, one of Atkinson's lawyers marched to the blackboard and added a name to the list they had labeled "Noll's NFL Criminals."
Blount, the league's defensive player of the year in 1975 and one of four Steelers on the list, (Steeler outnumber Raiders, 4-2), responded immediately by saying he will sue Noll for $5 million.
Blount's suit appears to be a gesture of anger. As a general rule, statements made under oath during a trial are considered privileged for purposes of libel law. The all-pro cornerback has virtually no chance of winning such a suit.
Blount had already decided before the incident that his $50,000 per-year salary would not be enough to lure him back to the Steeler camp for an eighth year. Blount says he will not play for Pittsburgh next season.
What Atkinson and Blount are asking is; "What are we doing here taling about this?"
The NFL Players Association washed its hands of the matter when the case went to litigation, [WORD ILLEGIBLE] had no further role in the case. At first, the NFLPA supported Atkinson when he was fined $1,500 by commissioner Pete Rozelle last year. But under terms of the new collective bargaining agreement, Rozelle has authority on matters of conduct on the field.
Atkinson gave a stiff "no comment" on the NFLPA'S withdrawal of support. But he appears angry.
Rozelle said Monday that actions such as Atkinson's tackle of Swann have "no place in professional football" and are "clearly outside the rules."
The rules, however, are vague. It is left to the judgment of the officials as to what is unsportsmanlike (the Raiders were not penalized during the game for Atkinson's action.)
NFLPA director Ed Garvey said the association "has suggested from time to time that things (in the rules) be made more specific. It is up to the referees to determine what is unsportsmanlike conduct and it will ultimately be up to them to control it. Fines don't do much good. The officials have to be tough; they have to have the guts to take action if they feel improper conduct is going on."
This still leaves Atkinson and Blount wondering why they are suddenly defending themselves for actions they are taught, told and paid to perform.
"Why should I feel guilty? I don't think I've done anything wrong," said Atkinson. I'm just trying to do my job. Football has always been a rough, tough game, from back in the Doak Walker days. You can call it violence if you like. But this game is a contact sport. It would be different if we had flags in our pockets.
"Hitting people is something I've been doing a long time. If you're not a person who can hit or be hit, you shouldn't be in this game. I've had concussions, but I didn't complain about them. I didn't even think it was that severe a hit. I gave him a hit last year that was worse."
Raider management never criticized Atkinson for the hit. Atkinson went to Raider managing director Al Davis' office two days after the game and asked for a raised.
Blount had a similar defense of his tackle on Cliff Branch of the Raiders.
"That tackle was a good, hard, aggressive tackle. There's nothing illegal about it at all," said Blount. "I don't refer to football as a violent game. It's a physical game played by grown men with a purpose - winning ball games. I wouldn't even know how to define dirty football, other than playing the game outside the rules. Any coach will encourage you to be aggressive, to make things happen.
"My conscience is clear. I've never played with an intent to kill or break arms or legs. But you have to play aggressively to keep from getting hurt."
When asked about his bad reputation. Blount said. "My reputation is in my favor. I have a good reputation."
Atkinson, who paused sheepishly when asked if he is a dirty football player has the same difficulty finding a definition of dirty football.
"My opinion may be different althogher different from someone else's Who's to say who's right? A lot of other backs are as aggressive as I am: (Jack) Tatum, Blount, Mel Phillips (of the 49ers) - I could go on and on."
Atkinson feels his conduct on and off the field should not be linked.
"In order to play football, you have to have two personalities," said Atkinson. "Playing my position does require a type of viciousness. I've always had it, because of the way I was brought up. I'm basically from a ghetto-type background in Savannah. At night, you talk fast and run fast. It taught me how to be a man.
"I'm totally different off a football field. I'm still an aggressive person, but not in terms of contact. I don't go to bars. I don't smoke cigarettes and I don't drink, except for beers.
"Off the field, I'm not violent at all. As a matter of fact, sometimes I think I'm too much of a soft touch."