Do Helmets Make Contact Sport Safer?

November 13, 2009

accident, Health & Safety, Negligence

The Wall Street Journal published an interesting story about the role helmets serve in protecting players in American football.  The article describes how helmets were invented to protect against skull and facial fractures which were then pervasive in the game and how those injuries have been replaced by concussions.  Whilst helmets reduced the likelihood of lethal skull fractures, they also paradoxically created a sense of invulnerability that encouraged players to collide more forcefully, more often and with hits directly to the head.  

The discovery that the compounding effects of ‘wear and tear’ to the brain as a result of such repeated hits is being felt by players years after they retire from American football has caused the game (and Congress) to take a hard look at itself.

The piece also provocatively showed how the at-least equally tough Australian football players, who do not wear the body armour and helmets worn by their American brethren, are 25% less likely to sustain a head injury although their incident rates for shoulder and knee injuries are higher.  This suggests that players compensate for the lack of personal protective equipment by either not hitting as violently or by knowing how to take a hit.  

On a related note, it is noteworthy that after years of dismissively rejecting any criticism of injuries to its hockey players by saying that the game was inherently violent, general managers of the National Hockey League are now contemplating rule changes that would make egregious blind-side hits to the head illegal.  This tide change was brought on by a recent rash of heat shots resulting in players temporarily losing consciousness and getting concussed.

No doubt motivating the decision makers of both leagues is how rule changes will affect the integrity of the game and the bottom line of the sport.  With bigger, stronger and faster players hitting one another harder than ever before, the NHL reasonably foresees a player getting paralyzed or killed if it doesn’t do something.

The National Football League, however, appears not to have an appetite to seriously look at this issue.

In another posting, I’ll couple American football players’ behavioural adaptation to helmets (by hitting harder) and hockey players’ response to rules cracking down on fighting (by taking more cheap shots) with the risk homeostasis theory as promulgated by Dr. Gerald Wilde of Queen’s University in Canada.  In short, Wilde’s theory says that a person or a system unconsciously calibrates and accepts a certain level of risk in order to maximize the overall expected benefit from an activity.  Thus, a control measure designed to mitigate the risk in one area (such as helmets or rule changes) is compensated by behaviour which elevates the risk to its pre-existing level.  This makes for quite the balancing act!

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