Every year or few, there is a push in football to emphasize calling a particularly penalty because of injuries occurring from a particular type of hit or penalty. This year, in college football, it’s “helmet-to-helmet contact,” though I think they’ve renamed the penalty to something else. With the ramifications of concussions becoming more clear, the concern is understandable.

Unfortunately, player behavior often follows the rules and we’re starting to see that later in the season. Ball-carriers seem to be intentionally lowering their head more frequently, making them harder to hit without getting them in the head. So on at least a couple of occasions, the announcers have mentioned what seemed obvious to me: without hitting the head, there’s simply no way to tackle to runner. They’re all but guaranteed a few extra yards or an extra 15 (plus an automatic first down) if they make the hit anyway. This is, perhaps, a small price to pay for player safety. And it seems to be effective. But I wonder if the end-result isn’t going to be runners retrained to get those extra few yards or even better draw a huge penalty. That would be a huge backfire.

A while back, Transplanted Lawyer complained about the NFL stepping up penalty-calling for injury-causing tackles:

Instead, it’s wimping out and threatening to penalize — including fining and suspending — players who hit each other hard and risk injuring their opponent. There is an inherent risk of injury in this sport, and all sports. People agree to do it anyway — they compete and dedicate their entire lives to giving themselves even an opportunity to do it, because there is a tremendous audience for it — and it’s fun. I don’t mean to suggest that the NFL should go back to the days of leather helmets, no pads, and adopt an eye-gouging rule. There should be reasonable ways to protect players from unnecessary and avoidable kinds of harm. I like that the players wear well-designed helmets, armor, and that there are particular kinds of maneuvers and stunts that are not permitted. It’s a fine line to draw as to what kinds of methods of forcing your opponent to the ground should be permitted and what should not be. The guys who run the show need to do what is reasonable and appropriate to prevent injuries — but they also need to bear in mind that we’re talking about tackle football. There are going to be injuries and I thought everyone knew that.

One of the ironies is that football would likely be safer if they did away with the pads and the helmets. The introduction of these safety measures resulted in players changing the way the hits are made. The illusion of invulnerability has caused players to become more and more reckless. Compare football to rugby, that other tackling sport that doesn’t have the pads, and it’s the former where injuries are far more common. Back when I was in junior high, in the offseason we would play a hybrid rugby-football game without pads and injuries never occurred because the hitter had no more protection than the hittee and so the result was that tackles were made with the aim of getting the player down rather than making sure that they don’t get that extra yard or two.

I’ve heard similar things about how seat belt and safer cars make things more dangerous for pedestrians, though I don’t know how true that is. There’s also a pretty strong argument to be made that the illusion of safety that condoms provide created a culture where people were less cautious about their sexual behavior and this is precisely why unwanted pregnancies and illegitimacy rates climbed ferociously as more and more ways to prevent same have become available.

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7 Responses to The Illusion of Safety

  1. Peter says:

    It’s not just the lack of helmets and pads that contribute to rugby’s relative safety. Rugby rules do not allow blocking, and require that tackling be done by wrapping one’s arms around the ball carrier’s legs as opposed to slamming into him.

    Notwithstanding these differences rugby still has a higher injury rate than football. The difference is that most rugby injuries are minor, there are very few of the season- or career-ending knee jobs and other major injuries that are so common in football.

  2. trumwill says:

    I should add that the slamtackle in football didn’t really becoming prominent until pads made them prudent. Prior to that, you wrapped your hands around the other guy (didn’t have to be the legs, though) and pulled them down. Or, at least, that’s what you do in padless football.

  3. Mike Hunt says:

    Great post. The only word missing is paradox.

    I think football would be better served if players wore soft helmets. The helmet is meant to protect the wearer, not to be used as a weapon by the wearer.

    The reason you need them in baseball and hockey is that you have projectiles traveling at up to 100 MPH. You don’t have that in football, so hard helmets aren’t necessary.

  4. Peter says:

    Player size is another factor that contributes to football’s high injury rate. 300-pound linemen are commonplace in the NFL and even on the college level. A full-speed collision with a player weighing that much can be a dangerous thing, even if the player being hit is the same size. Rugby players can be large, but certainly not to the same extent – IINM, players over about 250 pounds are uncommon.

  5. Kevin says:

    An interesting corollary is to boxing/ultimate fighting. When UFC started, it was actually safer than boxing because the fighters did not wear gloves. Thus, they could not hit their adversary in the head with a closed fist because they would break their hand. As ultimate fighting has become more like boxing, with gloves and rounds and such, it’s become more dangerous.

    The thing about the helmet-to-helmet and hitting-a-defenseless-receiver penalties that really bugs me is that I think oftentimes the defensive player is penalized for something that is out of his control. If he moves in to make the hit and the receiver drops the ball or catches it and drops his head and the ref doesn’t like the hit, the player is penalized even though his motives were not malicious.

  6. web says:

    I’m reminded of similar claims made regarding automobiles – the people most likely to drive recklessly, at least according to some studies, are those whose cars have high performance tires, anti-lock brakes, “traction control”, air bags, etc…

  7. trumwill says:

    Makes me wonder if the ever-increasing hysteria about how “unsafe” the roads are has actually played a role in making them safer.

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