In the last couple of years many people have
declared that American Football is in crisis, as former players are suffering from brain
damage in increasing numbers. Numerous studies have linked brain damage to concussions—
and since 2009, the number of concussions has jumped almost 70%, even as the league
has made rule changes to try to solve the problem.
Maybe rule changes alone won’t do the trick. Are there others ways to save the game, and
make it safer for players? We could start… by ditching the helmets.
Or at the very least, by making them flimsier. Do I sound crazy? Wouldn’t head injuries
be worse without the protection of helmets?? Maybe not. Over the same period that helmets
and other equipment have become stronger and more protective, concussions have actually
increased. And studies comparing the NFL to the helmet-free Australian Football League
indicate that NFL players are 25% more likely to suffer concussions than the Australian
players. One possible explanation is what economists
call “moral hazard.” When we try to insure people against the consequences of negative
outcomes, we reduce their incentive to avoid those outcomes of their own accord. So by
trying to soften the bad outcome, we actually make that outcome more likely
Think about the football helmets: the better that they protect players’ heads, the more
players may feel invulnerable or the more they might use their heads as weapons, given
how well protected they supposedly are. Today’s players are more aggressive, and more likely
to tackle with their heads—and hence they suffer from more concussions – than players
did ten or twenty years ago. Moral hazard doesn’t just affect football;
it has important implications for public policy. It’s a big reason why all kinds of laws
and public policies that are meant to make us safer can actually have the opposite effect.
For example, how should we reduce car accidents/injuries? We can mandate airbags and seatbelt use, but
some studies show that this leads to people driving more aggressively because they now
feel safer. A recent study from Texas A&M shows that the introduction of mandatory seat-belt
laws led to higher car accident fatality rates among non-occupants such as bicyclists and
pedestrians. An Australian study found that drivers of large SUVs were more likely to
engage in risky cellphone use while driving, perhaps because they believed the SUV made
them safer. These innovations do indeed make people safer,
but innovations that make us safer might cause to take risks we wouldn’t have before. And
those risks might cause harm others that offsets those gains.
Making people safer is tough—and you always have to pay attention to the incentives you’re
creating. Getting rid of fancy helmets might not be the whole solution to the NFL’s concussion
crisis, but it’s worth considering. Making players just a bit more conscious of their
own vulnerability, and that of their opponents, might reduce the number and severity of concussions.
People might say this makes the game less fun to watch, but how much fun is football
to watch when star players are constantly being injured, or deciding they don’t want
to risk their long-run health by playing the game?
Incentives matter and more safety can be bad for your health