Documents from the archives of President Nixon’s personal file collection reveal the President’s personal interest in football fatalities and methods towards reducing such incidents, particularly as they occurred in interscholastic high school competition where players were more likely to receive fatal injuries.
Don Kendall, Chief Executive Officer of PepsiCo from 1971 to 1986 and close confidant to the President, wrote on November 29, 1971 a letter in response to the President’s informal request for details regarding football related fatalities.
Below, see Kendall’s letter and enclosed report from the Interscholastic Football Fatality Report:
Kendall’s report depicts what appeared to be the first sign of presidential interest in football related injuries or death, of which he acknowledged at the beginning of his letter.
“At dinner on October 22, 1971, you expressed profound regret over the deaths of a number of football players during the 1971 season,” Kendall wrote the President. “You ask that I discreetly obtain the details regarding these tragic accidents and, if possible, make recommendations involving equipment, et cetera, that might decrease such incidents in the future.”
From time to time, Kendall counseled the President on matters of economic concern, and there were a few occasions as such where he offered other areas of counsel.
It was in this particular occasion that Kendall briefed President Nixon on the effort PepsiCo and its subsidiary at the time, Wilson Sporting Goods Company, Inc., were devoting towards concerted studies in the area of football accident prevention.
He informed the President that only seven of the thirteen known deaths in 1971 were reported to the High School Federation or to the National Collegiate Athletic Association and provided a detailed list of those young boys who had lost their lives as a result of football related activities.
Kendall also assured the President of the substantial investigative and research work being done to improve equipment and subsequent prevention of accidents, especially with those that occurred in the head or neck region.
Even at a time when the National Football League is investing heavily into concussion research and compensation for affected players and altering tackling rules, perhaps still most often overlooked is the role that coaching plays in accident prevention.
“I should add the somewhat discouraging note that those directly associated with football believe that all serious injuries cannot be prevented by improvements in the protective equipment worn by players,” referenced Kendall to the limits of equipment improvements.
“Proper fundamental instruction and coaching are by far the most important ingredients to minimize serious injuries,” he adds.
Attached to Kendall’s letter is a high school football fatality report compiled for the years 1948 through 1970. The report suggested a number of preventative methods, most notably that coaches be made aware of their responsibility for a player’s health and that officials properly enforce football safety.
“Officials must be more vigilant to strict enforcement of all aspects of the football rules, particularly those which safeguard the welfare of participants,” reads the report.
42 years ago, President Nixon showed a genuine concern for football players health and safety. 42 years later, a string of suicides among former NFL athletes and current athletes has been attributed to brain damage incurred by incessant concussions. The suicides of Junior Seau, Paul Oliver, Jevon Belcher, and many others has driven a juggernaut of an effort to curb brain damage be it through rule changes or grand research efforts.
While the NFL has instigated the effort, high school leagues–producing the nation’s majority of football players–seemed to have been ignored. It was President Nixon who recognized the need to address high school leagues first and the need to protect the young boys who were more susceptible to concussions and fatal injuries than their NFL counterparts.