On Aug. 12, 1978 Darryl Stingley, a wide receiver for the NFL’s New England Patriots, was leaping for a pass he had no chance of catching. Stingley was airborne, his body almost parallel to the ground, arms outstretched. Jack Tatum, a defensive back for the Oakland Raiders, was running at full speed toward Stingley. Tatum launched himself, missile-like, at Stingley’s head. In one thunderous, perfectly legal collision Tatum’s helmet collided with Stingley’s, and Darryl Stingley’s life changed forever. His 4th and 5th vertebrae were crushed and his spinal cord was severed. (Source: “Darryl Stingley: Happy to be Alive” by Darryl Stingley with Mark Mulvoy.) Stingley would spend the next 29 years, until his death early in 2007, as a quadriplegic.
On February 18, 2001 the 43rd running of the Daytona 500 NASCAR race was underway. In the last turn of the last lap of what would become a key turning point in NASCAR history, Dale Earnhardt’s car hit the wall in what seemed to be a routine, for NASCAR, crash. Though the angle of impact was pretty severe, the crash did not appear life-threatening to observers. But they were wrong. Dale Earnhardt was dead. Investigation would later reveal that Earnhardt died instantly of head trauma. (Source: CNNSI Dale Earnhardt Chronology)
A responsible governing body takes action
What does this have to do with MX/SX and the AMA? Nothing. And everything. In the spring of 1980 the NFL rules committee instituted the first of a series of changes to protect the head and neck area of players and later to prevent players from using the front or top of helmet to strike another. Over time the NFL increased the severity of penalties for such hits to the point players could be ejected from the game and/or fined for flagrant offenses, as well as working to educate both players and referees about the dangers. The changes, often denounced by players and fans for making the game “too soft,” were designed to ensure the long-term health of the sport and to try and put some limits on a game that thrives on violence.
Immediately after Earnhardt’s death NASCAR launched a significant investigation. Independent medical experts were brought in to review the accident records and autopsy report. Ultimately, NASCAR would conclude that Dale Earnhardt died of a severe whip-lash that fractured his skull. But before the controversy ended Bill Simpson, founder of Simpson Safety Equipment and maker of Earnhardt’s seat harness, was forced to resign. And NASCAR officials were under intense scrutiny for how they handled the situation.
By November 2001 NASCAR had formally mandated a head-neck restraint device for all drivers in its Winston (Nextel) Cup, Busch Grand National, and Craftsman Truck series (Source: Jeff Gordon online.) Both major open-wheel racing associations – CART and F1 – had done the same. Numerous drivers complained about the devices, claiming they impaired peripheral vision increasing the chance of accidents, gave them claustrophobia decreasing their ability to concentrate, and could potentially cause other injuries in non-life threatening crashes. Despite the protests the devices were required in an effort to ensure the long-term health of the sport and return the risk of death to the periphery of racing, where it belongs.
Contrast this to what happens in MX/SX. I’m not going to waste space here recounting specific incidents. But if you are an MX/SX fan you know all too well the stories of David Bailey, Danny Chandler, Chase Borders, James Marshall, Ernesto Fonseca, Donovan Mitchell, Jimmy Button, and dozens of others who have suffered spinal cord injuries. Add to that the numerous occurrences of severe concussion and brain trauma that have left racers fully or partially disabled for weeks, months, and sometimes forever.
Yet there are no investigations of these accidents. There is no formal program, even at the national event level, to try and categorically understand the causes of these injuries or ways to prevent them. And there is certainly no movement to require the use of safety devices that might preclude or reduce the severity of such injuries.
And therein lies the problem. A governing body whose sole function was to protect, nurture, and grow the sport of MX/SX – and whose long-term financial health was tied directly to the health of the sport – would be aggressive about protecting the talent on which the sport is built. Such a governing body would, at its core, understand that racing is a talent-based entertainment business and, while part of the excitement is risk and danger, long-term success requires that the talent be able to show up every week and race. Consistently putting your talent in caskets or wheel chairs is just plain dumb. Letting your sport become too closely associated with permanent disability is irresponsible.
The NFL, NASCAR, CART, F1, and the IRL have figured this out. Even when it’s unpopular these organizations make safety decisions if they think it’s for the long-term betterment of their sport. But not the AMA.
The root of conflict
The AMA believes motorcyclists have individual rights and should be allowed to choose their safety equipment. The AMA’s position in support of voluntary helmet use says the following:
Although the Association strongly encourages helmet use by all motorcyclists, it maintains a long-standing fundamental belief that adults should continue to have the right to voluntarily decide when to wear a helmet.
The AMA opposes provisions conditioning rider choice of helmet use on economic criteria such as, but not limited to, additional insurance coverage, which is based on the negative and incorrect view that motorcyclists are a social burden. The AMA believes accepting such requirements is contrary to the long-term interests of motorcycling.
This position may well be the correct one for an organization that represents 100,000+ street riders. But it is certainly not appropriate for a governing body that wants to promote and protect a high-risk activity like MX/SX racing. Can you imagine if NASCAR or CART or the NFL tried to operate in today’s world with such a philosophy?
I’m not suggesting that the AMA, or anyone else, doesn’t care about safety. God knows, there was ample uproar after Ernesto Fonseca’s injury to make it clear that people both inside and outside the AMA are worried about this. And I’m not even suggesting that the AMA, or anyone else, should be mandating some specific safety device such as the Leatt brace.
What I am suggesting is that there is a reason why, despite all the outcry and good intentions, nothing (or at least very little) happens.
That reason is that the AMA is in fundamental conflict. The AMA’s allegiance to street riders – comprising two-thirds of its core purpose of Rights, Riding, and Racing – and its subsequent position on safety equipment, are in fact in fundamental conflict with the philosophies held by other well-governed sports organizations. And this conflict has consequences.
Such a conflict makes the AMA slow to address safety issues if such action might be seen as infringing on a rider’s individual rights. It took the AMA until 2007 to mandate something as simple and non-controversial as the Hats Off Emergency Helmet Removal device. The chances of mandating something as controversial as the Leatt brace – setting aside for the moment arguments about its effectiveness – in such circumstances are nil. And you can forget about mandating equipment such as chest protectors, back protectors, etc.
In a world where MX/SX was run by a dedicated organization – one whose primary focus was to promote, protect, and grow the sport for the long-term – rider safety would likely be a priority. If nothing else the public outcry from the recent rash of horrific injuries would be forcing the organization to put resources into research, understanding, and experimenting to solve the problems.
But in a world where racing governance must compete with street rider’s rights, and where resources must be shared among street riders, historic preservation, government relations, and all manner of other worthwhile but unrelated motorcycle issues, indecision and the requirement to reach consensus before acting will continue to paralyze safety efforts in the same way injury is paralyzing our racers.