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.