How One Grieving Father Got Lawn Darts Banned

Lawn darts, or Jarts, were all the rage in the 1980s. With a few Jarts, a few friends, and a few beers, American backyard-barbecue-goers would lay down small plastic hoops as targets and play a game not entirely unlike horseshoes. Each player would toss the darts into the air, attempting to arc them into the opposite ring. While the darts, which had a metal spike and plastic fins on the sides for flight stability, were not especially sharp, they were weighted. They picked up enough speed to come sailing down with a satisfying thunk and stick in the ground. Landing a bulls-eye in the hoop would net a player three points, and the closest non-bullseye landings would get a point.

David Snow, an aerospace engineer from Riverside, California, wasn’t even looking for lawn darts when he went shopping for party games in April 1987. He wanted a volleyball set, but all the department store had was volleyball in a combo pack with two other games. Whatever, he decided. He’d buy it, set up the volleyball net and leave the rest in the box in the garage.

His plan didn’t bear out. One Sunday afternoon soon after, his nine-year-old son and some of his neighborhood friends found the Jarts and began tossing them around in Snow’s backyard. One kid tossed his Jart too far and too high, sailing it over the backyard fence and into the front yard, where Snow’s daughter, seven-year-old Michelle, was playing with her dolls. The Jart came down right on her and, with what researchers estimate as 23,000 pounds of pressure per square inch, penetrated her skull. She collapsed, was rushed to the hospital, and was pronounced clinically dead three days later.

For weeks after, the Snows were overcome with grief. When David returned to work at Hughes Aircraft, he had a hard time adjusting. He sat in meetings listening to his co-workers talk about work things. Parts shortages. Budgets. Personnel issues. None of it seemed the least bit important anymore. His sadness gave way to anger, and he began a crusade. "I want to get these damned darts," he told The Los Angeles Times at the time. "These things killed my child. If I don't do anything, it's just a matter of time before someone else gets killed. I'm going to get them off the market. Whatever it takes."

He began to research Jarts and discovered that, for years, they had been banned from sale in the U.S. because of several injuries they’d caused to children. Jart manufacturers and distributors had challenged the ban in court, though, and won a compromise: a regulation stating that lawn darts could made and sold provided they were marketed only as a game for adults. A warning label had to be placed on each package alerting consumers to the danger they posed, and the darts couldn’t be merchandised in toy departments or sold in toy stores.

To Snow, Michelle’s death proved that the regulation didn’t protect kids. It didn't matter that they were sold as an adult game; if Jarts were in a home and children were allowed to play with them or could still get access to them, he thought, accidents would happen. He wanted the ban back in place and began lobbying public officials with phone calls and letters telling his story.

When Snow brought his complaints to the the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), they told him that their injury clearinghouse, which makes national estimates of injuries caused by products based on a sampling of hospital emergency room reports from around the country, only knew of some two dozen injuries from lawn darts. A complete ban couldn’t be justified by that. Snow asked them to check their stats again.

By the Numbers

The commission, which had already come under fire from parents and consumer groups for their lax regulation and high-profile injuries from ATVs and other products, went along with his suggestion. During their new investigation, they separated lawn dart injuries from all dart-related injuries for the first time, and found that most Jart injuries had been lost in their figures. Over a period of eight years, lawn darts had sent 6,100 people to the emergency room. 81% of those cases involved children 15 or younger, and half of those were 10 or younger. The majority of injuries were to the head, face, eyes or ears, and many had led to permanent injury or disability.

When the commission collected 21 different lawn dart sets from 14 manufacturers, they also found that most of them weren’t complying with the warning requirements. A survey of 53 retailers likewise found that many weren’t following the regulation, and in a third of the stores, lawn darts were displayed in toy departments or with toys and sporting equipment intended for kids. The commission met with lawn dart makers and distributors and struck a new agreement on improved labeling and retail practices. The commission published a new safety warning for lawn darts and scheduled a vote on an outright ban for later in the year.

The week of the vote, Snow went back to Washington, D.C. to lobby the commission and get press for his cause. He gave interviews to consumer reporters from TV stations and newspapers. He met with President Reagan's assistant for consumer affairs. Finally, he had meetings with each of the three consumer product safety commissioners. By the time they voted, Snow felt confident he had at least two of the three commissioners on his side.

He was right. As an 11-year-old girl in Tennessee lay in a coma from a lawn dart injury earlier that week, the commission voted 2-1 in favor of a ban. Lawn darts were removed from stores the week before Christmas in 1988 and banned from further sale. The ban did not, however, include a recall of darts that had already been purchased, and the commission sent out a press release pleading for the public to destroy their darts or keep them out of the hands of kids.

Canada followed with their own similar ban, and today, fully assembled individual lawn darts, sets, and kits are banned from sale in, or entry into, both countries. If you try to list Jarts on eBay, they’ll pull your auction, but it’s still possible to buy and sell them at flea markets and yard sales, out from under the eye of the CPSC. It’s also okay to buy and sell replacement parts to repair damaged lawn darts purchased before the ban.

Despite the CPSC’s warnings to purge them and the possibility of puncturing someone’s skull, some folks still pull their old Jart sets out summer after summer. I vaguely remember their presence at family parties when I was a kid, and settling for a Jart game at a college barbecue when we couldn’t find sand on short notice to build a horseshoe pit. There’s even an underground Jarts tournament based in the suburbs of Dayton, Ohio, chronicled in the book Sports from Hell: My Search for the World's Dumbest Competition.

5 Fast Facts About Muhammad Ali

Kent Gavin/Getty Images
Kent Gavin/Getty Images

Muhammad Ali is one of the most important athletes and cultural figures in American history. Though he passed away in 2016, the heavyweight boxing champ was larger than life in and outside of the ring. The man who coined the phrase "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” won 37 knockout victories—and more about his inspiring life can be seen in the new documentary What’s My Name Muhammad Ali, premiering May 14 on HBO. Here are five more fast facts about Ali, a.k.a. The Greatest.

1. Cassius Clay was named for a white abolitionist.

Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. and named after his father, who had in turn been named for a white abolitionist. The original Cassius Clay was a wealthy 19th-century planter and politician who not only published an anti-slavery newspaper, but also emancipated every slave he inherited from his father. Cassius Clay also served as a minister to Russia under President Abraham Lincoln.

2. Muhammad Ali's draft evasion case went to the Supreme Court.

In the early 1960s, Clay converted to Islam, joined the Nation of Islam, and took the name Muhammad Ali. According to his religious beliefs, Ali refused to serve in the Vietnam War when he was drafted in April 1967. He was arrested and stripped of his boxing license and heavyweight title. On June 20, 1967, he was convicted of draft evasion and banned from fighting while he remained free on appeal. His case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which unanimously overturned his conviction in 1971.

3. He received a replacement gold medal.

At the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, Ali won the gold medal for boxing in the light heavyweight division. But, as he wrote in his 1975 autobiography, The Greatest: My Own Story (edited by Toni Morrison!), he supposedly threw his medal into the Ohio River in frustration over the racism he still experienced in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. Some historians dispute this story and suggest that Ali just lost the medal. Either way, he was given a replacement when he lit the Olympic cauldron at the opening ceremonies of the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.

4. Muhammad Ali was an actual superhero.

In 1978, DC Comics published Superman vs. Muhammad Ali—an oversize comic in which Muhammad Ali defeats Superman and saves the world. In real life, Ali did save a man from suicide. In 1981, a man threatened to jump from the ninth story of a building in L.A.’s Miracle Mile neighborhood. Ali’s friend Howard Bingham witnessed the unfolding drama and called the boxer, who lived nearby. Ali rushed into the building and successfully talked the man down from the ledge.

5. Muhammad Ali starred in a Broadway show.

In Oscar Brown, Jr.'s 1969 musical adaptation of Joseph Dolan Tuotti's play Big Time Buck White, Ali played a militant black intellectual who speaks at a political meeting. The play ran for only five nights at the George Abbot Theatre in New York. His Playbill bio reported that Ali "is now appealing his five-year prison conviction and $10,000 fine for refusing to enter the armed services on religious grounds. The Big Time Buck White role that he has accepted is much like the life he lives off stage in reality.”

What's the Difference Between Pool and Billiards?

iStock.com/Steevy84
iStock.com/Steevy84

Walk into a bar or private rec room and you're likely to encounter a pool table, with patrons and guests leaning over a green felt surface and striking a white cue ball with a cue stick in an effort to sink the rest of the balls into six pockets. If you're invited to join, most people will ask about a game of pool, not a game of billiards. Yet both terms seemingly refer to the same activity. What's the difference?

According to the Billiard Congress of America, billiards was developed out of a lawn game similar to croquet in the 15th century. When play moved indoors, green tables were used to simulate grass. Originally, the balls in billiards were driven by a mace with a large tip instead of a stick and through something similar to a croquet wick. The game evolved and expanded over time to include pocketed tables and shot-calling for points, enjoying wide popularity in America in the 1920s. The term billiards comes from the French words billart ("wooden stick") and bille ("ball").

As the popularity of billiards grew, billiards tables became common sights in gambling parlors where horse racing wagers or other bets were being placed. Because a collection of wagers is known as a pool, pocket billiards began to be associated with the term. Some professional pool players still use the term billiards to describe what's more commonly known as pool. Typically, billiards can refer to any kind of tabletop game played with a cue stick and cue ball, while pool largely means a game with pockets.

In the UK, however, billiards can refer to English Billiards, a variation in which only three balls are used, with the player striking his cue ball and a red striker ball to move his opponent's cue ball. There are no pockets used in the game.

You may wonder where this leaves snooker, an even more obscure game. Since it's played with a cue and a cue ball, it's technically billiards, but snooker has a specific rule set involving 22 balls that need to be sunk with consideration given to each color's point value. At 10 to 12 feet in length, a snooker table is also larger than a conventional pool surface (from 7 to 9 feet) and its pockets are an inch smaller in diameter.

The bottom line? If you're in a social setting and get challenged to a game of billiards, it's probably going to be pool. If you're in the UK, it could mean the pocket-less version. And if you get challenged to a game of snooker, be prepared for a very lengthy explanation of the rules.

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