smash ’em bro: is safety equipment making sport more dangerous?

A bit of variety is always good, so I thought it’s high time I posted about about a sport other than football. The sport that has inspired this latest post is… Football. But not that kind of football. This kind of football:

Sleeveless denim jackets and pick up trucks style football

Over 100 former players are suing the NFL claiming that there were not properly protected from concussions. As you know I try to keep things short but here is an excellent, and tragic, article about the dangers of multiple concussions and how the brains of middle aged former footballers resemble the brains of late stage Alzheimer’s patients. I will start by discussing whether the NFL are at fault for the injuries to their players. I will then look at whether the amount of protective equipment players wear is to blame for the high rate of concussions. Ideally this will also get some discussion going in the comments sections, of the 1000 or so people who have visited the site only one has commented so get involved people. On the face of it there are two sides to the coin in this argument, either the players should have known better and the players should have been told better. 

Should Have Known Better

An argument that the players involved should have know better implies that the players suffering long term injuries from concussions should have known that this would happen. Injuries are nothing new in American Football. Surely these players knew when they made the choice to become professional footballers that injury is an inherent risk that comes with the profession. Just as a soldier knows that an accompanying risk of being a soldier is that he could be shot in a war. But the reasons behind this lawsuit isn’t that the players were being injured. The reason behind the lawsuit is that the players feel they were not made aware of the extent of the dangers that they were in.

Should Have Been Told Better

Not only did the NFL not make players aware of the dangers associated with multiple concussions. They actively denied  and attempted to suppress the evidence the pointed to multiple concussions causing brain diseases latter in life. It could be argued that it was the players’ responsibility to find out whether or not such dangers exist. But how far should they be reasonably expected to go to find out about such risks. When the NFL are issuing press statements denying any causal links it is reasonable for the athletes to believe their advice. This would be like the army issuing a statement that there is no risk of being at war and being shot. There is another interesting and unexpected way that the NFL might be considered culpable for the long term brain injuries of their players: Safety equipment.

Does Safety Equipment Make Sport Less Safe?

With frequent concussions lying at the heart of these lawsuits it might seem ridiculous to say that the sport would be a lot safer if no one wore a helmet. But I think safety equipment is the most philosophically interesting issue here. I’m not saying that helmets don’t do any good, they certainly protect players, but they also allow players to be more reckless. Players frequently fly into contact head first, and there is regular helmet on helmet contact. Compare this to a physically similar sport like rugby. Rugby has its fair share of concussions, but not to the extent that players suffer crippling illness in the years following their retirement. Rugby players do not wear helmets like players in the NFL, because of this their tackling technique tends to be far less cavalier. If rugby players were to fly into tackles putting their heads in compromising positions in the same way that American Footballers do they would fracture their skulls and probably kill each other.

Boxing gloves are similarly problematic. They protect the hands of boxers, and soften the blow for their opponents. But bare-knuckle boxers rarely attack the heads of their opponents because if they did there would be a high risk of breaking their hands. The face is a very hard and boney part of the body. Boxing gloves give protection to the hands lessening the risk of hand breakage. The unintended byproduct of taking the safety precaution of introducing gloves is several boxers dying in the ring every year (read more about the boxing debate here). Similarly the introduction of better helmets and padding in the NFL could well have had the unintended side effect of causing serious long term brain injuries to many of its players.

There are risks we accept when we participate in our chosen sport. American footballers are aware of the risk of injury that comes with their sport. But they weren’t aware of the extent of the risks because of the NFL’s actions. If the NFL had made players aware that there were serious longterm risks then the players would have been able to make better informed decisions about their futures. So now that the risks are out in the open is that the end of the story? Maybe. As outlined above the safety measures taken in the sport may well be making it less safe. The NFL have already taken measures to clamp down on helmet on helmet contact, hopefully this will help improve tackling technique. But to seriously alter the way players approach the game there should be some serious consideration to the way that the amount of protection players have affects their willingness to put themselves in dangerous situations.

This brings us to another tough question. Who are the NFL responsible to: the players or the fans? If it is the players and removing helmets (or going back to the leather helmets of a bygone era) would make the game safer, then it ought to be done. However, if it is the fans then making the game safer might not be the required step. If the NFL are responsible to the fans then arguably it is their duty to make the game as entertaining as possible. If the use of modern helmets and pads allow big hits that are intrinsic to the entertainment value provided by football then the NFL ought not remove the padding. It might seem obvious that the NFL should have the players interests at heart, but without the fans there would be no NFL. Fans are how football makes money, through ticket sales, merchandise, advertising revenue, and massive TV deals. If the players want to earn the ludicrous amounts of money that they do then they might have to accept that later in life they will not be functional human beings.


8 thoughts on “smash ’em bro: is safety equipment making sport more dangerous?

  1. Does the NFL have stringent rules about coming back to play again after having a concussion? The NBA has recently instated the rules that you get a certain down time after experiencing concussion like symptoms in a game. This is obviously trying to avoid players coming back to quickly and avoiding further damage.

  2. Personally I find their suing the NFL a bit difficult to understand. On what grounds? That had they known that there was a small chance of developing a poorly researched disorder in the future that they would have given up their million dollar contracts? Not played the game they love? I find that hard to believe.

    1. They would have negotiated vastly different contracts.

      a 2 million dollar signing bonus might not be that attractive when you might not be able to get health insurance at age 40.

  3. Whilst I agree it’s unlikely that any of them would have given up their contracts, the fact that the NFL denied that there was any link despite having evidence that there was I think is grounds for them suing.

  4. Excellent essay. The equipment in gridiron football makes the sport more dangerous not less. And it is troubling that my three favorite sports, gridiron football, boxing, and rugby football all face the same head trauma issues.

  5. Also interesting that a U.S. boxing promoter is attempting to revive a form of bare knuckle boxing, which as you point out, is actually safer than boxing with gloves.

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