Football Helmets and Head Injuries

Michael Giberson

Paul Walker at Anti-Dismal sees the economic content in the recent Wall Street Journal article on football, helmets, and head injuries.  Here’s a piece of the story:

Why do football players wear helmets in the first place? And more important, could the helmets be part of the problem?

“Some people have advocated for years to take the helmet off, take the face mask off. That’ll change the game dramatically,” says Fred Mueller, a University of North Carolina professor who studies head injuries. “Maybe that’s better than brain damage.”

The first hard-shell helmets, which became popular in the 1940s, weren’t designed to prevent concussions but to prevent players in that rough-and-tumble era from suffering catastrophic injuries like fractured skulls.

But while these helmets reduced the chances of death on the field, they also created a sense of invulnerability that encouraged players to collide more forcefully and more often. “Almost every single play, you’re going to get hit in the head,” says Miami Dolphins offensive tackle Jake Long.

So there is talk about giving up on helmets.

One of the strongest arguments for banning helmets comes from the Australian Football League. While it’s a similarly rough game, the AFL never added any of the body armor Americans wear. When comparing AFL research studies and official NFL injury reports, AFL players appear to get hurt more often on the whole with things like shoulder injuries and tweaked knees. But when it comes to head injuries, the helmeted NFL players are about 25% more likely to sustain one.

Andrew McIntosh, a researcher at Australia’s University of New South Wales who analyzed videotape, says there may be a greater prevalence of head injuries in the American game because the players hit each other with forces up to 100% greater. “If they didn’t have helmets on, they wouldn’t do that,” he says. “They know they’d injure themselves.”

The economics at issue is variously referred to as the Peltzman effect and the Tullock effect, namely, strategic adaptation to safety regulations or devices in ways in which offset some of the intended outcomes.  The safer the vehicle, the bigger the risks that drivers are willing to take.  Note that there may be negative externalities, as for pedestrians walking in the neighborhood of safer drivers taking bigger risks.

Or, to return to the football example provided above, the better the helmet, the harder the hits delivered.

Gordon Tullock’s proposal, illustrated in the title banner at the economics blog Offsetting Behavior, is placement of a large spike on each car’s steering wheel with the point aimed directly at the driver.  Sure, riskier for the driver, but much safer for everyone else.

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