The Dangers of Safety Equipment

Tuesday, January 10th, 2017

Mike Munger discusses the dangers of safety equipment:

In high school, I played football and wore pads and a helmet. During that time, I endured two shoulder separations, a dislocated kneecap and several snapped tendons in my hand.

In college, I played rugby and wore heavy cotton shorts and a stiff jersey, while suffering only some scraped elbows and several memorable hangovers from parties with “rugger huggers” after matches.

More equipment, more injuries? Social scientists have seen that before; they call it the Peltzman effect, after the economist Sam Peltzman. The feeling of safety, it seems, induces us to be less careful. A famous illustration of the Peltzman effect is that the better sky diving gear becomes, the more chances sky divers take, keeping the fatality rate from sky diving roughly unchanged over time. Peltzman’s point was that though rule-makers can regulate safety, people choose their own level of risk.


There are three things going on in football, and it’s important to keep them separate. The first is the formal rules, which attempt to limit concussions. The second is conventional tackling practice, which has a high risk of concussion. And the third is the informal rules, or “the code.”


When formal rules and the informal norms of sports conflict, players (and the game) suffer. In football today, the rules (no head shots) and norms (head shots are part of the game) conflict. And then there’s the other factor, tackling practice: Almost everyone believes that the helmet-first tackling style is more effective. As Dierdorf said, sending a man to the bench has been a badge of honor, not a violation of the code, even if you intended to knock him out. Anyone who avoids delivering a blow to avoid ringing the guy’s bell is a wimp, and he also risks missing the tackle. Formal rules will never be enough to deter head shots under those conditions.


The sportswriter Jonathan Clegg has argued that adopting rugby tackling is the key to making football defense both safer and more effective. Clegg’s argument has had mixed reviews in the football establishment. But there have been some takers. Pete Carroll, the coach of the Seattle Seahawks, has used rugby principles for football tackling, as is demonstrated in a video.


  1. Slovenian Guest says:

    This reminded me of: TEDxCopenhagen – Mikael Colville-Andersen – Why We Shouldn’t Bike with a Helmet

    “In a 2010 Tedx Talk (video above) Mikael Colville-Andersen, cycling ambassador for Copenhagen, insisted that some research found that cycle helmets actually cause more brain damage.

    Moreover, he described society’s obsession with safety equipment as “almost pornographic.” Why, he wondered, don’t pedestrians wear helmets, as they suffer more brain damage than cyclists? For him, riding without a helmet is also a symbol of the livable city. The problem, as he sees it, is drivers, not cyclists. What would happen, he mused, if drivers were forced to wear helmets? That would surely save lives. It would also destroy car sales.”

    He is correct, as drivers give cyclists more passing room if they are not wearing a helmet. It’s almost Luttwakian, in the “the bad road is the good road because it is the bad road” sense, only for safety.

  2. Anomaly UK says:

    I always imagined that the reason American footballers don’t tackle like rugby players is that they can’t afford to give up the ground. In rugby you hit the runner’s legs and their momentum plays a large part in bringing them down, but that means that taking a fast-moving runner you’re giving them three or four yards from the point where you start to hit them. In rugby that usually isn’t a big deal, but in American football it’s that much less to the next first down.

    Having said that, I’m no expert in either game, though I’ve watched quite a bit of both and played rugby (extraordinarily badly) at school.

  3. Isegoria says:

    For a Brit, you know our game well, Anomaly UK. American football is a game of inches.

  4. Grasspunk says:

    The Seahawks make a big deal about doing rugby-style tackles in the open field. They’ve even made videos of it, e.g.

    That being said, they still get their head on the wrong side a lot. Do that without a helmet and you’ll feel it.

  5. Anomaly UK says:

    While we’re throwing around comparisons, something that most non-Americans won’t be aware of is the short season of American football.

    An NFL team plays, if I have it right, between 18 and 23 games per season, including preseason and the playoffs. In comparison, an English Premier League soccer team plays 38 league games, plus cup games, plus European competitions, and most of the players play in international matches on top. Rugby is in between: 22 games in the Aviva premiership, plus 6-9 more for European competition.

    The cause of that difference, I assume, is that the bodies of American footballers could not sustain the damage that that many more games would produce.

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