Sports in Courts: Savagery on Sunday

Today’s post was written by Matthew DiBiase, archives specialist at the National Archives at Philadelphia.

A new exhibit showcasing the impact sports have had on America has opened at the National Archives Museum. All American: The Power of Sports spans centuries of United States history and features more than 75 original items from National Archives’ holdings, including items documenting sports at Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding schools. The exhibit is free and open to the public and will be on view through January 7, 2024.

September marks the start of another season on NFL football. The game of Pro football has changed dramatically over the past several decades from its earlier forms. This blog post will feature two civil case files that were filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (Frank Kilroy v. Time, Incorporated and Wayne Robinson v. Time, Incorporated), which harken back to the earlier days when the NFL had a more tenuous foothold in the American sports consciousness, and was not the mega-billion-dollar international enterprise it is today.

The case files featured here tell a story of a simpler, sterner, wide open and violent era in NFL football. In 1955 there were only 12 NFL teams (today there are 32). NFL rosters were limited to 35 players (today its 53 men). There were only two teams west of the Mississippi river (the Rams and the 49ers). The southernmost team in the NFL were the Washington Redskins. There were some NFL teams that still refused to allow black players on their squads (the Washington Redskins were the last NFL team to desegregate in 1962).

The style of play was rough and brutal with very little protections for the players. Facemasks were slowly coming into use and some players still played without them. There was no in-the-grasp rule to protect quarterbacks. It was legal to hit a quarterback from the blindside. There was no concussion protocol. Defenders could close-line tackle players on offense. They could use their forearms to club a player. Face-masking was legal until 1962.

On October 24, 1955, Life magazine did a story titled “Savagery on Sunday” which sought to expose excessively dirty play in the NFL, using photographs to identify dirty tactics along with commentary from former football players which was supposed to corroborate this dirty play.

Two players featured in the expose were Philadelphia Eagles players defensive lineman Francis “Bucko” Kilroy and defensive linebacker Wayne Robinson. Both men were accused of being dirty players and the article featured photos (as seen above in Exhibit A) of the two men allegedly engaging in this “dirty” play. The article described Kilroy and Robinson as “ornery critters”.

Francis “Bucko” Kilroy was born in 1921 and was raised in the Port Richmond section of Philadelphia and played football at Temple University. He was signed as a free agent by the Phil-Pitt Steagles (the Philadelphia Eagles and Pittsburgh Steelers combined squads due to roster shortages caused by World War Two) in 1943 and played for the Eagles from 1944 until 1955 as an offensive and defensive lineman. He earned three Pro Bowl appearances from 1953 to 1955; and he helped the Philadelphia Eagles earn three NFL Championship game appearances from 1947 to 1949 and win two NFL Championships in 1948 and 1949.

Wayne Robinson was born in 1930 and grew up in Minnesota. He played football at the University of Minnesota as a linebacker and was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1952. He earned Pro Bowl honors twice in 1954 and 1955.

On October 28, 1955, both men filed a civil suit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania against Time, Incorporated (which owned Life Magazine) in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania alleging that Life magazine defamed their reputations with its allegations featured in the story. Both men sought damages for $50,000 and special damages for $200,000.

On November 25, 1955, Time, Incorporated through their lawyers issued their answer to Kilroy’s and Robinson’s civil complaint where they denied Kilroy’s and Robinson’s allegations against them in their civil complaints.

Two days later, on November 30, 1955, both Francis “Bucko” Kilroy and Wayne Robinson requested a jury trial. After years of legal maneuvering by both sides the cases went to trial in 1958.

Over eight days of trial proceedings (April 21-24 and April 29 to May 2, 1958) both sides called several witnesses (which included former and active NFL players) who testified both for and against Kilroy and Robinson as to whether the article was accurate when Life Magazine accused Kilroy and Robinson of being dirty football players.

One witness who testified on Kilroy’s and Robinson’s behalf was future NFL Hall-of-Famer New York Giants safety Emlen Tunnell:

Page 308 from Emlen Tunnell’s Testimony, U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania Civil Case File No. 19761, Wayne Robinson v. Time, Incorporated. Box 1558-1559. (NAID: 565160)

Another witness who testified on behalf of Time, Incorporated as to the reputation of Kilroy and Robinson was former Cleveland Brown legendary quarterback (and future NFL Hall-of-Famer) Otto Graham:

Page 79 from Otto Graham’s Testimony, U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania Civil Case File No. 19761, Wayne Robinson v. Time, Incorporated. Box 1558-1559. (NAID: 565160)

And there were also moments of hilarity during the trial when Detroit Lions end Cloyce Box testified as to what he meant when he called Kilroy and Robinson “ornery critters” in the Life Magazine article.

Page 142 from Cloyce Box’s testimony, U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania Civil Case File No. 19761, Wayne Robinson v. Time, Incorporated. Box 1558-1559. (NAID: 565160)

On May 2, 1958, the jury ruled in favor of both Francis “Bucko” Kilroy and Wayne Robinson and ordered Time, Incorporated to pay both Kilroy and Robinson $5,000 each in general damages and $6,600 in punitive damages and that the defendants were supposed to pay the plaintiffs’ court costs as well. Six days later, Judge Kraft issued a court order affirming the jury’s judgment.

After the trial, Bucko Kilroy later worked as a scout for the Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins, and the Dallas Cowboys from 1960 to 1970. In 1971 he accepted a position as director of player personnel (later to become general manager in 1979 and, ultimately, Vice President in 1983) for the New England Patriots and remained with the team until he retired in 2006. Kilroy died in 2007.

Wayne Robinson left the Philadelphia Eagles after the 1956 NFL season and became a football coach in the Canadian Football League from 1957 to 1961; at the University of Iowa from 1964 to 1965; and coached in the AFL and NFL for the Houston Oilers, Green Bay Packers, and Atlanta Falcons from 1966 to 1976. Robinson passed away in 2015.


The records featured in this blog post are located at the National Archives at Philadelphia. Interested in learning more or reviewing the records? Email philadelphia.archives@nara.gov for further research.


Cases discussed in this post:
U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania Civil Case File No. 19760, Frank Kilroy v. Time, Incorporated. Box 1558. (NAID: 565160)
U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania Civil Case File No. 19761, Wayne Robinson v. Time, Incorporated. Box 1558-1559. (NAID: 565160)

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