Shrapnel from the Litigation Explosion

July 14, 1995|By DAVID R. BOLDT

PHILADELPHIA — Philadelphia. -- By happenstance, I found myself over the Fourth of July weekend at a swim-club pool in Washington I'd last seen 25 years ago.

It was indeed ''deja vu'' all over again. The scene from memory and the scene from reality seemed eerily identical, right down to the blue-and-cream lounge chairs, except for one thing: The diving board was gone.

When I told my sister, she responded that while at a summer-camp reunion in Connecticut in June, she and a friend had taken a nostalgic canoe trip across the lake and come upon the old diving float, rotted and moss-covered. Looking back at the camp's waterfront, they realized there was no diving board anymore.

All over America, diving boards are disappearing. And the reason is not a mystery: fear of lawsuits and rising insurance rates.

Diving deprivation is another piece of collateral damage caused by shrapnel from the litigation explosion. It is also part of the

risk-averse streak that is spreading through American society and turning us into a nation of weenies.

The situation is sufficiently dire that U.S. Diving, the organization that oversees the sport in this country, has launched a campaign to save our remaining diving boards. (Only 15 percent of nonresidential pools still have one.) The fear at U.S. Diving is that this country, which has long dominated the sport, could soon become a nation of the diving-impaired.

More is lost than possible future Olympic medals when diving boards are removed. There are few more satisfying experiences in recreational sports than launching oneself into the air from a diving board, flying seemingly weightless, then cutting a splashless entry through the water's surface. (Another joyous possibility is drenching one's friends with a well-timed cannonball.)

Diving creates a sense of danger, which makes it particularly useful in teaching courage to youngsters, but the danger is largely an illusion.

Consider this: There is no known instance of a fatal or catastrophic injury in competitive diving in the United States at any level -- high school, college or Olympic.

Of course, all recreational activities involve some risk, and people do get hurt diving. But in a 1984 survey of sports-related injuries involving trips to emergency rooms, injuries resulting from ''diving and diving boards'' ranked 14th -- behind such danger-packed pastimes as golf, bowling and sitting in bleachers.

The category in which diving does look comparatively dangerous is ''catastrophic spinal-cord injuries.'' There are not very many, but the cost of every single one is immense.

So when you read in statistics compiled by the University of Alabama at Birmingham that ''diving'' accounts for two-thirds of the persons who become quadriplegics because of sports-related injuries, there is an understandable impulse to run around ripping out diving boards.

The catch is that almost none of these ''diving'' accidents had anything to do with a diving board. Only one in four occurs in a pool, and virtually all of those (95 percent) involve dives made ''into the shallow end.'' (These accidents usually take place at an unsupervised residential or hotel pool and typically involve a young male who has been drinking.)

If the problem is not diving boards, then what is it?

''The biggest problem we have in this country,'' one diving official told Aquatics International magazine last year, ''are the lawyers.''

If that's true, might not there be some way to turn the situation around by creating a legal feeding frenzy in which lawyers would be attacking other lawyers?

Why not have a class-action suit filed in behalf of all those people who have suffered pain from being denied the pleasure of taking a stress-releasing dive? The defendants would be well-heeled lawyers who have filed frivolous diving-related suits that have contributed to the decline in diving-board availability.

We'd have to figure how much a good dive is worth. A quarter, perhaps? That doesn't sound like much until you consider that an estimated billion dives are taken every year. I mean, we could be talking real money here.

David R. Boldt is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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