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.

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From Ear to Eternity: When Mike Tyson Bit Evander Holyfield

Evander Holyfield (L) and Mike Tyson (R) compete in their rematch in Las Vegas on June 28, 1997. The bout would make sports history.
Evander Holyfield (L) and Mike Tyson (R) compete in their rematch in Las Vegas on June 28, 1997. The bout would make sports history.
Focus On Sport/Getty Images

As the 16,000 spectators began filing out of the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada, following a night of fights on June 28, 1997, MGM employee Mitch Libonati noticed something strange on the floor of the boxing ring. He later described it as being roughly the size of a fingernail, with the texture of a piece of hot dog or sausage.

It was no concession stand remnant. It was a piece of Evander Holyfield’s ear.

Wrapping the morsel of flesh in a latex glove, Libonati hurried backstage, where Holyfield was conferring with officials and doctors after his opponent, Mike Tyson, had been disqualified for biting him on the left ear. In all the commotion, Libonati wasn't allowed inside the room. But Michael Grant, one of Holyfield’s training partners, accepted the ear fragment on Holyfield’s behalf.

Libonati’s discovery was the climax to one of boxing’s most controversial and bizarre evenings, one in which "Iron" Mike Tyson—the most famous fighter of his era—meted out a savage reprimand for what he perceived was dirty fighting on the part of Holyfield. The ear-biting far exceeded the brutal underpinnings of boxing and added to Tyson's reputation as a frenzied combatant both in and out of the ring.

 

Mike Tyson’s collision with Evander Holyfield had started when the two were just teenagers. On the amateur circuit, they had sparred together—not quite knowing the heights each would achieve, but understanding the other would be a formidable obstacle if they were to ever meet as professionals.

Evander Holyfield (L) had success against Mike Tyson (R) early on.Focus On Sport/Getty Images

Tyson was a prodigy, having won the heavyweight championship of the world in 1986 at the age of 19 and dominating the division up until an upset loss to James “Buster” Douglas in Tokyo, Japan, in 1990. Holyfield was the lighter fighter at cruiserweight (190 pounds), moving up to the heavyweight division in 1988 and gaining respect for his trilogy with Riddick Bowe.

Long before that fateful night in 1997, Tyson's personal life had started to overshadow his accomplishments inside the ring: An allegedly abusive marriage to actress Robin Givens darkened his image in the media and ended in a very public divorce after just one year. In 1992, a rape conviction sidelined the fighter for more than three years while he served out his prison sentence.

When Tyson returned to the ring, he rattled off a string of wins against fighters not quite at his level, including Peter McNeeley, Buster Mathis Jr., Frank Bruno, and Bruce Seldon. Holyfield had stepped away from competition in 1994, but as Tyson knocked off inferior opponents, talk of a bout with Holyfield intensified. Finally, the two met in Las Vegas on November 9, 1996, with Tyson a 17-1 favorite over the semi-retired Holyfield.

Holyfield would prove his doubters wrong. Through 11 rounds of action, he outmaneuvered and outclassed Tyson by negating his opponent's power with movement and volume. Holyfield also landed headbutts that were declared unintentional, but to Tyson seemed deliberate. Before the fight could see a 12th round, Holyfield knocked Tyson down and earned a technical knockout victory.

 

While it was an undoubtedly disappointing moment for Tyson, an upset in boxing virtually guarantees a lucrative rematch deal. Both men agreed to meet a second time, with Holyfield earning $35 million and Tyson getting $30 million. Tyson’s camp, however, insisted that the referee from the first bout, Mitch Halpern, not be booked for the second, because Tyson felt he failed to call the illegal headbutts. The Nevada State Athletic Commission didn’t want to be seen capitulating to Tyson’s demands, but Halpern stepped aside voluntarily. So referee Mills Lane took his place.

Evander Holyfield (L) and Mike Tyson (R) first met as amateurs.Focus On Sport/Getty Images

Before a huge crowd full of A-list celebrities like Sylvester Stallone and a then-record 1.99 million households that had purchased the event on pay-per-view, Tyson and Holyfield met for a second time at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on June 28, 1997. While Holyfield took the first round, Tyson appeared fit and adaptive, and came out blazing in round two. Then, just as Tyson had feared, Holyfield’s headbutt struck him again.

The clash of heads opened a cut over Tyson’s right eye, which threatened to obscure his vision as the fight went on. It also opened a reservoir of frustration in the fighter that would manifest in a spectacularly violent way.

Coming out for the third round, Tyson had forgotten his mouthpiece and had to go back and retrieve it—a foreshadowing of things to come. His aggression was working against Holyfield, but with 40 seconds left in the round, the two clinched up. Tyson moved his mouth so it was near Holyfield’s right ear. With his mouthpiece still in place, he clamped down on the ear, ripped the top off, and spat it along with his mouthguard onto the canvas.

Holyfield jumped up in the air in shock and pain. Referee Mills Lane was initially confused by what had happened until Holyfield’s trainers, Don Turner and Tommy Brooks, yelled out what Tyson had done. Lane called for a doctor then told Marc Ratner, the executive director of the athletic commission, that he was going to end the fight. Ratner asked if he was sure. Seeing Holyfield was bleeding from his ear but otherwise ready to fight, Lane waved the two men back into competition.

Incredibly, Tyson bit Holyfield a second time, this time on the left ear, before the round ended. This time, Lane was aware of what was happening and had seen enough. Before the start of the fourth round, he disqualified Tyson.

 

That was far from the end of it. Realizing he had lost the fight, Tyson grew incensed, shoving Holyfield from behind and pawing at the security guards who had stormed the ring in an attempt to restore order.

After the bout, Tyson didn’t appear to be overly contrite. He explained that he was frustrated at Holyfield headbutting him without being penalized, and said he had lost control.

An emotional Mike Tyson reacts to his disqualification loss to Evander Holyfield.Focus On Sport/Getty Images

“Listen,” Tyson said. “Holyfield is not the tough warrior everyone says he is. He got a nick on his ear and he quit.”

Tyson believed his retaliation was justified. “This is my career," he said. "I’ve got children to raise and this guy keeps butting me, trying to cut me and get me stopped on cuts. I’ve got to retaliate. What else could I do? He didn’t want to fight. I’m ready to fight right now. Regardless of what I did, he’s been butting me for two fights. I got one eye. He’s not impaired. He’s got ears. I’ve got to go home and my kids will be scared of me. Look at me, look at me, look at me!”

Two days later, Tyson issued a tempered apology in an effort to minimize the consequences, but it was too late. In addition to losing his boxing license in the state of Nevada, Tyson was fined 10 percent of his purse, or $3 million, which was thought to be the largest fine in sports at the time.

 

Tyson could never entirely shake the stigma of his actions. When a lucrative bout with Lennox Lewis was being planned in 2002, the fight ultimately ended up taking place in Memphis, Tennessee; Nevada refused to restore Tyson's license following a press conference brawl between the two men.

Tyson ultimately continued competing through 2005, when he lost his last bout to Kevin McBride. Holyfield retired in 2011. Earlier this year, the 54-year-old Tyson expressed a desire to return to the ring. The fighter once known as "The Baddest Man on the Planet" is scheduled to fight Roy Jones Jr. on November 28, 2020. Yet Holyfield, now 57 years old, remains a possible future opponent.

The two have occasionally interacted in public in interviews, with Tyson expressing remorse and Holyfield admitting he briefly thought about biting Tyson on his face right back. The pair even filmed a spot for Foot Locker in which Tyson “gave” Holyfield the missing piece of his ear.

In reality, Holyfield never did get his ear back. After Mitch Libonati handed it over to Michael Grant, the piece somehow fell out of the latex glove while being transported to the hospital.

Many fighters talk about leaving a little piece of themselves in the ring. It’s usually metaphorical. For Evander Holyfield, it was simply the truth.