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Opening Arguments

Head cases

You may have heard of economist Gordon Tullock's theory -- much discussed in conservative circles a few years ago -- that mechanical innovations meant to improve automobile safety might actually have the opposite effect. The safer car travel is made with things such as seat belts, airbags and anti-lock brakes, the more secure people feel so the riskier their behavior, actually increasing their chances of injury. Now someone has applied that theory to football helmets and the NFL's current fixation on brain injuries:

Back to the NFL and football more broadly, it’s always amused me when my British and Australian friends have emotionally told me how much tougher their countrymen are for competing in a sport similar to American football without pads. In truth, the lack of pads speaks to a sport – Rugby – that is exponentially less violent than is U.S. football.

Indeed, returning to Tullock’s logic, it’s the pads and helmets that make football the often gruesomely violent and debilitating sport that it is today. Rugby players are doubtless tough, but the lack of pads and helmets ensures for those who play much greater odds of walking away from the game in sound physical shape.

[. . .]

To put it plainly, the “safer” the padding and helmets become in football, the more dangerous the game becomes. Tom Brady Sr. questions whether he would let Tom Brady Jr. play today, and there’s some validity to his uncertainty owing to the paradoxical truth that the more the players are protected the more likely they are to be seriously hurt.

This strikes me as one of those "There's some truth in it but where do we draw the line?" propositions. The more dangerous something is, the less likely we are to engage in it. As the author notes, if death were the near certain result of unsafe driving -- if, for example, we mandated spears on car steering wheels that would impale the driver in the event of an accident -- it's safe to say the latter would disappear. But the more uncertain we make death as a possible outcome, the more likely we are to engage in the activity.  And the safer we feel, the more likely we will take risks.

I think it's absurd to use this argument -- as some conservatives do -- to lobby against all safety ionnovations. We can have a lively and valid argument about whether the government should protect us from ourselves by mandating seat belts, but I've been in a couple of serious crashes, and I can no more consider driving without a seat belt than I would consider walking across broken glass without shoes. At some point, however, we reach a tipping point where the amount of protection provided promotes enough risky behavior to make an activity less safe that it otherwise would have been.

It's a fair question whether they've reached that point in the NFL. The comparison to rugby is a thought-provoking suggestion that perhaps they have.


Tue, 05/29/2012 - 11:45am

I have read that there is no statistical evidence showing that antilock brakes have made cars any safer, but I don't believe anyone in the world drives any more recklessly because they have them. Honestly, when was the last time, while driving, you gave any thought to whether your car has antilock brakes?

However, dramatically falling fatality rates despite steady accident rates, show something is safer about modern cars. It seems reasonable to guess that seat belts and air bags play a part.

As for football, my wife suggests the players compete completely naked. For their own safety, of course.