This story appears in the Oct. 17 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
PAY ATTENTION TO THE NFL THIS SEASON and you'll notice the steps Roger Goodell & Co. have taken to limit player injuries, particularly concussions. The league moved kickoffs from the 30-yard line to the 35, broadened its definition of "defenseless," imposed a protocol to evaluate players with potential brain injuries and announced fines for any team whose roster commits multiple illegal hits. But the NFL, along with the NHL, MLB and every league struggling to keep players healthy, should keep this in mind: Making a sport safer often leads athletes to behave more recklessly.
Look around and you'll see that strange things happen when a dangerous environment is stripped of some of its hazards. Studies show that bicyclists ride faster and feel less threatened when they have helmets on; more experienced boaters are less likely to wear life jackets than novices and, when they do, are more likely to drink alcohol; children running on an obstacle course crash into more objects -- and finish the course faster -- when they wear protective equipment. These are all examples of the phenomenon economists call "risk compensation."
There's risk compensation across sports too. Joel Potter, an economics professor at North Georgia College & State University, looked at results in Formula One racing from 1950 to 1996 in a paper recently published in the Journal of Quantitative Analysis in Sports. F1 is one of the most dangerous sports on the planet; in the years Potter examined, there were 54 injuries and 20 deaths in 597 races. Since the 1960s, F1 has gone through several waves of rules changes and safety improvements, such as safety foam in fuel tanks and fire shields in fan galleries. Potter found that drivers crashed far more often from the 1960s to the 1990s, even though their casualty rate decreased. "Drivers are offsetting the intended effects of regulation," Potter writes.
Once you start looking for risk compensation in sports, you find it everywhere. A batter with protective armor probably feels freer to crowd the plate. Hockey players wearing strong pads likely engage in more vicious checking. This seems like bad news for attempts to improve safety. Thankfully, recklessness often counteracts just part of the positive impact of a new technology.
In F1, a 1 percent drop in casualty rates resulted in a 0.53 percent rise in accidents, according to Potter -- not nothing, but not a full offset either. Further, some injuries are so horrible that they're worth fighting, even with blunted tools. Like seat belts, F1 helmets may spur risky behavior, but they do prevent death.
What risk compensation really highlights is the fallacy that equipment is the best way to change a sport's safety culture. In fact, rules stand a better chance. If a league penalizes or bans specific acts, rather than simply adding protective gear, it can make athletes safer more or less by fiat. After the NCAA banned spearing in football in 1976, cervical and spine injuries dropped sharply. If the NFL keeps reducing players' options to play recklessly, even James Harrison may exhaust his methods for decapitating opponents.
That said, while the NFL deserves props for its new rules, it has made one egregious mistake. Risk compensation shows that you should never let players believe that a piece of equipment makes them safer without strong supporting evidence. But this is exactly what the NFL has done. In July 2010, the league released the initial results of its helmet testing program, even though independent experts and some helmet makers believed the research methods were seriously flawed and the results misleading. The league also has allowed Riddell to call itself the official helmet maker of the NFL because of the cash the company paid it, not because of any independent lab tests demonstrating the superiority of its equipment. It's anybody's guess how many players have been deluded into thinking they're protecting themselves from concussions with particular helmets when they're actually not.
In the ongoing battle to make sports safer while keeping them real, there's only one thing worse than doing nothing: giving athletes a false sense of security.
Peter Keating is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.