Damar Hamlin and Sam Peltzman: Where Football Meets Economics
Damar Hamlin’s shocking injury on the field on January 2nd has reignited debates about safety in the dangerous sport. Safety should be a top priority, but if the NFL or worse, lawmakers, decide to increase safety standards, they may increase critical injuries rather than decrease them.
The key to this is the Peltzman Effect. In a 1975 paper, economist Sam Peltzman theorized that automobile safety regulations would, apart from saving the lives of drivers, cause more pedestrian deaths due to the increased recklessness attributable to the safety measures. This can be easily universalized to all kinds of safety measures, especially those found in contact sports.
For example, helmets partially protect the head, and professional football has a notorious concussion problem. Why? People are emboldened by the extra protection to lead into tackles headfirst.
The recent introduction of additional safety equipment to the NFL is not exempt from this effect. The so-called “Guardian Caps” were introduced in 2022’s training season. They functionally act as an airbag for the head. Data on the Guardian Caps claim that it could reduce the impact of a collision by 10-20% in professional football games.
I am not disputing how much they could reduce the impact force of collision. However, we should be concerned with how it affects behavior. Of course, the players will play the game with marginally more carelessness.
A good illustration of this problem is bubble soccer. This is a game in which people play soccer while in giant inflatable balls that completely protect them from impacts. The balls are massive and provide almost perfect protection. The result? Families have a grand time crashing into each other at neck-break speeds. Maximum protection, minimum caution.
In the case of football, the helmets, Guardian Caps, and other padding only provide partial protection, but given that it provides protection, it should be expected to increase recklessness. The NFL, the press, and potential regulators should ask themselves this: Do the additional safety measures trump the effect of the additional recklessness embraced by the players?
Unfortunately, with the injury of Hamlin garnering nationwide attention, the NFL might get pressured into introducing more safety measures; the Guardian Cap could be one of them. The problem of risk compensation is not mainstream, so I doubt that the NFL will be pressured into considering the Peltzman Effect. Rightfully so, they are looking out for themselves; increasing safety measures protects them from lawsuits and government regulators, but they might end up hurting those they intend to protect.
Additional equipment has a diminishing effect on recklessness, doing away with most protection could be a step in the right direction.
I am not the only one to suggest this. Luckily, sports journalists have given the idea serious consideration in the past, and it has even been tried in some states such as New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Texas. Former Steelers receiver Hines Ward has even suggested removing helmets from the games in order to prevent concussions. Economist Art Carden in a 2021 article has also suggested, citing the Peltzman Effect, ditching safety gear.
There is still a long way to go before the public is convinced of the Peltzman Effect. Introducing the very concept makes people shake their heads and chuckle, but this is nothing to laugh about. People’s lives and bodies are being ruined, and we must do our best to convince the mainstream of this theory’s validity.
Until then, we should all wish Damar Hamlin a speedy recovery.
Benjamin Seevers is a student at Grove City College studying economics and philosophy.
Feb 12 2023 at 3:32pm
The Peltzman effect is something worth considering, but do we actually have much empirical evidence of it? You ask this question
But then seem to assume that the answer is no? Particularly when you are looking at sports, I think you’d get to a point where the safety measures can compensate for as much induced carelessness as the human body is able to dish out? When it comes to something like driving, you can pretty much always go faster, but there are limits to how fast the human body can go and how much force it can apply. In the bubble soccer example, are there a rash of injuries occurring due to the extra carelessness?
Feb 12 2023 at 4:06pm
Oh yeah. Tons. If you pop over to Google Scholar, you can find all sorts of papers if you search on the phrase “Peltzman Effect.”
Feb 12 2023 at 4:28pm
It’s funny that you should mention that, because before I commented I had done just that. The first few papers I looked at all had something in the abstract along the lines of:
That’s from a paper “Peltzman on Ice: Evidence on Compensating Behavior Using a
Natural Experiment from Ice Hockey” (not linking, since that always gets my comments in moderation). This paper does seem to find a linkage, but using a proxy of penalty minutes vs. outright injuries.
I should say that I believe the Peltzman effect is real, I’m just skeptical of the magnitude of the effect vs. the added safety benefit.
Feb 12 2023 at 4:45pm
The version of the paper I find doesn’t have that line in the abstract. The abstract states it provides evidence of the Peltzman Effect. I do see that line at the beginning of the literature review, which I am not too surprised about. I feel like every paper I find these days has some version of that line, no matter what the topic is. But that is neither here nor there.
The question about whether the negative Peltzman Effects outweigh possible safety benefits is an interesting question, made all the more complicated by the presence of an arms race. It’s going to be a question of margins
Feb 12 2023 at 7:10pm
Tangential but interesting: the NHL changed its rules some years ago to address the concussion problem, and they were very successful because of the way they directly worked with players who violated the rule in its first year.
A “dangerous hit” required a three-day (paid, and paid by the league not the team, important) suspension with a trip to the NHL office in NYC, for a whole day watching film with the head of officiating and a union rep. They watched the hit and other similar plays over and over, with the focus on finding the moment the player committed physically to the dangerous hit. They were trying to change agressive behavior(s) that players had learned from the cradle. They knew that even if the players absolutely WANTED to prevent concussions, twenty years of intense physical training would override the abstract idea. So they gave the player(s) a physical look at what they were doing, and identified *what* they had to change.
The overall focus, not on blame but on trying to improve, was the real key that helped the concussion protocol be a big success, in the very traditional and stubborn NHL culture.
Feb 12 2023 at 8:57pm
From what I understand, there were serious methodological issues with Peltzman’s paper. In general, economists find examples of offsetting behavior and that is often called the Peltzman effect (which muddies the terminological waters), but in my experience just about any paper claiming that offsetting behavior overwhelms the effect from the policy change usually have serious methodological flaws and tend not to be replicable.
Also, again based on my own recollection, rugby has as serious an issue with concussions as football.
Feb 12 2023 at 11:28pm
I understand the Peltzman Effect, but if the players’ heads are wrapped in a pillow (Guardian Cap) shouldn’t that decrease the danger to their foe? I’d rather be hit with a pillow than a hard shelled helmet. The NFL proved that the addition of the Guardian Cap reduced the impact forces to the player wearing it. It also showed that the forces decreased 2X when both players are wearing it. Matt Stafford saved his hand by hitting the soft Guardian Cap vs a hard shelled helmet. Other players are getting less injuries to knees, elbows, ribs, fingers, etc… when hit by a Guardian Cap vs the hard shelled helmets.
I’m sure the results of the Bubble Soccer match showed that there were far less injuries to either the aggressor and the victim because of the soft padding around each athlete. If we are going to ask for more protection, let’s consider more safety equipment that protects 360 degrees – like the Guardian Cap.
Feb 13 2023 at 8:13pm
Damar Hamlin suffered a heart attack because he took a Covid vaccine. To make the game safer, prohibit players from taking Covid vaccines rather than the opposite.
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