Forewarned of Forearms

March 17, 1994

Let it be said from the outset that the injury lawsuit brought by Carroll County's first female football player is not about gender, but about the extent of a school system's responsibility to inform students of the dangers of that violent sport.

But it should also be clear that the case, argued last week before the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, may well influence high schools in deciding whether to allow other girls to participate in full-contact football.

The $1.5 million lawsuit against the county school board was brought by Tawana Hammond, who ruptured her spleen and pancreas when tackled in her first inter-varsity scrimmage in 1989.

The former scholastic track star and her family argue that school officials should have warned them about the possibility of disabling or "life-threatening" injury in playing varsity football.

The staff at Francis Scott Key High School in Union Bridge say the family was informed verbally and in writing of potential dangers and that Tawana's brother had earlier quit football after a leg injury.

At issue is the extent of specific warnings considered legally adequate for participants in football and other dangerous sports. Lawyers admit there was some warning, but disagree on how much.

That is why the legal decision will be closely watched in Maryland and throughout the United States. (A Carroll County Circuit Court judge dismissed the suit last year.) Whether male or female, scholastic players require sufficient warning of the potential dangers of the sport.

That said, it is unlikely that any boilerplate legal release form is going to dissuade many boys from playing the game, regardless of its specificity. In fact, unstated in the Hammond case is the contention that males who have played the sport since childhood are more aware than females of the possible dangers of competitive varsity football.

Although Ms. Hammond's small size did not disadvantage her in practice with teammates on Key's relatively small squad, she was exposed to greater danger in a game against larger players from an opposing school. That factor may influence the type of warnings given prospective scholastic football players by high schools, as well as heightening liability concerns about the vulnerability of females in full-scale varsity games.

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