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
The expensive injuries are among a variety of troubles to hit the Cop'er Bowl in recent years. They range from logistics problems in scheduling practices around police work to the lack of community support in donating services and watching the game.
In January only 11,000 people watched The Heat defeat the County Mounties at Jack Murphy Stadium for the 10th time in 11 years. The lopsided result is just another reason to cancel the game, according to Burgreen.
"The only thing that extended it one more year is that the sheriffs won once (in 1986). It's like the Clippers playing the Lakers."
Interviews with San Diego police officials, sheriff's personnel and members of the Cop'er Bowl committee revealed the following problems:
- Attendance slipped to about 11,000 in January year despite promotions designed to increase fan support, according to Cop'er Bowl committee members. They said they have paid for fireworks each year, arranged for Navy SEALs to parachute into the stadium and organized a 10-K run to boost interest in the game.
San Diego Police Sgt. Donald Fasching, who said the game has never attracted more than 20,000 spectators, said that the Cop'er Bowl committee has considered paying a popular rock band to attract bigger crowds.
This year the Cop'er Bowl honored 22 high school all-star football players at half time and gave three $1,000 scholarships to local high schools. Six of the all-stars didn't even bother to pick up their awards, Fasching said, and few high school followers came to watch the game.
"That was kind of disappointing," said Fasching, treasurer of the Cop'er Bowl committee. "We thought we'd get a lot of support from their schools . . . Really the only folks that show up anymore are law enforcement families."
Nevertheless, proceeds from this year's game enabled the Cop'er Bowl Committee to contribute $15,000 apiece to the Make-A-Wish Foundation and the Children's Workshop for Autistic Kids.
- Last year, San Diego police officers began working 10 hours per day, four days per week, which made it more difficult for police supervisors to schedule work shifts around Cop'er Bowl practices.
"I think it's too time-consuming for the officers," Kolender said. "It takes too much work. It's very difficult for them to do their jobs and then go practice. I think to just play one game takes too much effort."
- The game, which is played each January, would not receive nearly the amount of publicity or local media attention next year because it would be held during the same month that San Diego plays host to its first Super Bowl.
"From the standpoint of public relations, it's a very worthwhile event because people perceive police officers as something less than human," said sheriff's spokesman Tenwolde. " . . . They are given the opportunity to see police officers compete with one another in one of the great American sports. When they do this in the name of charity, it's a tremendous public relations event. It gets tremendous media hype. It's tremendous also for morale."
However, local law enforcement officials doubt that the game would draw much attention next year.
"The chances of us getting even limited press are about slim and none," said San Diego Police Officer Dave Kruk. "The feeling I've heard from the sheriff's office and our people is maybe we should take a one-year break and get through the Super Bowl and start it up again."
- Last year's game was a logistics nightmare. Cop'er Bowl organizers said that too few ticket gates and refreshment stands were open, not enough T-shirts were printed and the grass field was in terrible shape because of a mud tractor pull the week before.
The extended 10-hour work day forced the Police Department squad to practice at night. As a result, they could not use the San Diego Chargers practice field as in past years because it does not have lights. Instead, the police used the San Diego High School field and paid for janitors and electricity. The team also had to borrow equipment from the high school team because San Diego State was playing in the Holiday Bowl.
- Many of the 50 officers who have played for the Police Department have lost interest in playing, said Officer Larry Gosnell. Several officers who have played in all 11 Cop'er Bowls have said they will not return this year.
"A lot of guys who have been playing for awhile say they are not going to play," Gosnell said. "It's a big commitment with conditioning, getting off work and trying to readjust schedules . . . all these guys get hurt and are out for a while and the command voices concerns."
The injuries to officers have been a nagging problem for Cop'er Bowl organizers. Most of the competitors who get hurt suffer knee and leg injuries, Forsythe said.
Deputies Anthony Heacock and Floyd Freiburger suffered knee injuries so severe that they were unable to return to work and received disability retirement in 1982. Both are receiving one-half of their income for the rest of their lives--Heacock is getting $1,137 per month and Freiburger is being paid $1,100 per month.
Heacock could not be reached for comment. Freiburger, 36, now works as a deputy marshal for the U.S. Marshal's Office in San Diego. He said many injuries like his could have been prevented if the officers were provided knee braces and proper training.
Freiburger qualified for disability retirement because his knee injury prevented him from doing patrol work and the Sheriff's Department did not have any permanent light-duty positions available, said his attorney, Patrick J. Thistle.
Thistle said he has not been as successful in gaining compensation benefits for several San Diego police officers who have been injured in the Cop'er Bowl.
"If I was on the San Diego Police Department, I would never get a uniform on for that game," Thistle said. "But a lot of them are just dedicated enough to do it."
Thistle praised Duffy for standing behind his deputies and paying for their medical expenses.
"John Duffy deserves the credit for this," Thistle said. "He said this is a hell of a thing for the community because of all the money it raises, the sheriffs do good things and they deserve the money. Duffy's support made the day for the deputy sheriffs."
Thistle called the Police Department's philosophy "conservative and penny-pinching." The city has argued in court that it does not sanction or support the event and, therefore, the department should not be held liable for any injuries.
"I can't agree with that," Thistle said. "The Police Department and Kolender both get a lot of real good publicity out of that. Yet they'll testify against their officers for the worker's compensation appeals board."
Kolender responded: "We support the effort but the officers have to understand they are doing this on their own time. They have to understand the city can't be liable like this for a sporting event."
The Cop'er Bowl still "has a lot of liability problems" for the Police Department, Burgreen said.
"We have to be realistic about it. The chief of police does walk the sidelines, Duffy does push Kolender up and down C Street (to pay off their annual bet) and the former city manager sits in a box and announces the game. Although it is not a city or Police Department program, it is certainly supported by the Police Department in many ways."
Cop'er Bowl officials said they have tried to limit the number of injuries by requiring players to undergo physical examinations before they practice and issuing knee braces for players.
But county and city officials said they remain worried about the potential for serious injuries.
Forsythe, the county's risk and benefits manager, said, "There's always the possibility that one of those guys could end up in a wheelchair. We would have a very expensive claim on our hands with 100% disability and the whole enchilada."
Forsythe said he has suggested that the Sheriff's Department challenge the Police Department to a less dangerous sport.
"I facetiously ask them why don't you go looking for something you can win. They've only won one game out of 11. I suggested a 10-K run or something."