Playing Without Protection: Solving Football's Concussion Crisis

Release Date
August 5, 2014


Basic Economics

Is it crazy to think that making football helmets flimsy or getting rid of them altogether could reduce the amount of football concussions in the NFL? In this video, we discuss the moral hazard of football helmets. Moral hazard refers to the lessening of people’s incentive to avoid negative outcomes when they are presented with additional forms of protection. Will attempts to reduce risk in injuries actually create more?

Since 2009, the number of concussions has jumped almost 70%.
NFL players are 25% more likely to suffer concussions than the Australian players.
Texas A&M study shows that mandatory seat belt laws have led to higher accident fatalities for non-occupants.
Australian study found that drivers of large SUVs were more likely to engage in risky cellphone use while driving.
Learn More:
Economist Peter Leeson explains how moral hazard played a big role in the economic crash of 2008.
Economist Peter Boettke explains the role of moral hazard in regards to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
In this NY Times article, it’s revealed by two economists having designated hitters create moral hazard for pitchers.
Prof. Steve Horwitz penned an article 4 years ago on this exact subject!

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.