The Dangers of Safety (Ep. 1)

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What Do NASCAR Drivers, Glenn Beck, and the Hitmen of the N.F.L. Have in Common? Interviews and musings about danger and safety in the modern world.

As mentioned yesterday, we are launching a podcast, Freakonomics Radio.

In the first episode (subscribe at iTunes; subscribe to this RSS feed; read the transcript; or listen now in the player above), we ask the question: “What Do NASCAR Drivers, Glenn Beck, and the Hitmen of the NFL Have in Common?”

The answer? Each of them shows how risk is becoming a sort of luxury good. It’s a program about safety measures, the Peltzman Effect, and (mis)conceptions about danger (including, yes, fatal shark attacks).

Today’s blog post focuses on the NFL part of the show. Among the people interviewed are Dr. Robert Cantu, an expert in the field of head trauma whose affiliations include the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment and the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research. In the podcast, he describes what happens to the brain during a violent blow to the head (think Jell-o) and talks about how modern football helmets have led to a significant decline in deaths — you can see the numbers here. The old numbers are sobering: between 1931 and 1965, 348 high-school students died from playing football. There are still 4 or 5 deaths a year from football — though none, notably, in the N.F.L. If there were — well, we’d be hearing a lot more about death by football than we do today.

Not all head trauma leads to death, of course, and Cantu highlights a paradox: helmets built to prevent death may do a worse job of preventing concussions. Much attention has been paid lately to the issue of football concussions — see Alan Schwarz‘s excellent articles, and an OpEd today by Deborah Blum — and we try to get inside the players’ helmets to talk about what happens during a particularly hard hit.

Quintin Mikell

Last week, I interviewed several players who were assembled for the Pro Bowl in South Florida. Among the most fascinating — candid and extremely descriptive — were Quintin Mikell of the Philadelphia Eagles. Here’s an excerpt from the podcast, with Mikell talking about the hardest hit he ever took, what it felt like afterward, and what it would be like to play football without a helmet.

Stephen Dubner Interviews Quintin Mikell

Quintin Mikell, strong safety for the Philadelphia Eagles, one day before playing in the Pro Bowl.

The podcast also features Terence Newman, the very-hard-hitting cornerback of the Dallas Cowboys. Here’s Newman in action, bringing down the Saints’ Marques Colston in a game on Dec. 19, 2009. From the look on Newman’s face, he wishes he could have hit Colston a lot harder.

Photo: AP Photo/The Clarion-Ledger, Ryan Moore Terence Newman tackles Marques Colston.

In the podcast, Newman talks about wanting to “de-cleat” receivers; he also discussed the taxonomy of the muscle-bound, including the difference between being “ripped” and “swoll.” I brought my son along on the trip (he’s followed football for quite a while); here is Newman counseling Solomon on how to look a little more “swoll”:

Terence Newman

One interview that didn’t make the podcast was with Don Hasselbeck, who played nine seasons as tight end in the NFL. (He also fathered two NFL quarterbacks: Matt and Tim.) Don had more than his share of concussions. Here’s a portion of the interview transcript:

SD: So when’s the first time you remember getting knocked out playing football?

DH: It was 1973, my senior year in high school [La Salle, in Cincinatti] … It was an interception, and I went and tackled this guy and we obviously hit heads. … And every concussion after that, whether it was in the pros or in college, for whatever reason, and I don’t know what — obviously not understanding the brain enough — but I thought I was back in high school. … I could have been in my ninth year of playing for the Giants, and I could have been laying there on the field, looking at my pants and going, “These aren’t mine — we wear red pants at LaSalle.”

SD: I want to know what you think of modern helmet. Your sons — one’s still wearing a helmet, one wore it until recently. You work in the sporting industry [for Reebok], you see a lot of equipment — what do you think of them?

DH: Well, I know they are better. … It’s funny we’re having this conversation, because I have asked my son Matthew to evolve into a better helmet for next year. It’s not so much that he gets hit in the head, but his head strikes the ground — the back of his head — when he gets tackled. … What happens is a player, because he’s in his 12th year, you become comfortable in a certain style of helmet. So every year, you go, “Hey, I want that style.” And it’s a new helmet but it’s an old technology and my point to him was, “Look, if you’re wearing the same technology from 5 or 10 years ago, man, you’re in trouble.” … [But] he just doesn’t like the look, because that’s how football players are. They don’t like to change their look or change the feel. He loves the way that helmet feels. But, I think he’s realizing that it’s probably time to figure out who makes the best one and let’s try to wear that one.

SD: If you were still playing tight end today, surrounded by violence on every play, and wearing the best helmet ever made — do you think it would significantly change the way you played the game?

DH: Oh, no question. I think what you do is you end up using that helmet as weapon. There’s no question. Not so much in my position. But let’s take a defensive position. Where, you know, I would have to run the seam. You’re basically running straight down the field and you have linebackers and in most cases safeties, a strong safety or a free safety, who’s got to come from covering in a zone area. So now, you’ve converged in his zone. Well, when he strikes you, the first thing he strikes you the first things he’s striking you with is his helmet. First of all, I’m 280 pounds running down there, or 250 pounds or whatever. He’s 180, or 200. He’s not gonna hit you with his elbow, or his shoulder. He’s going to drill you with his helmet. I mean, that’s the way we played. If you were to go back and look at any of the films from the seventies and eighties, that’s what everyone did. Guys made the Pro Bowl because they speared people. They spear you with their helmet.

A few days after we spoke, it was announced that Don Hasselbeck is 1 of 20 NFL players to have donated his brain for research to the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University School of Medicine.


In case you want the link for the CSTE and information on the work being done there, it's at:


Indeed, don't lock us into iTunes, give us the direct RSS feed link. I was able to find the file download links, but not the RSS feed.



Good thing it's really easy to find the url of the mp3 file itself by looking at page source and downloaded it from there.


No helmets!?! I thought that was a joke at first, but it's an interesting idea. No helmets in rugby. Don't know for sure, but I doubt they have the head trama issues. The tackling rules for rugby are a little different. For example, you can't really "hit" someone, you need to wrap them up when you tackle them.


I have been wondering for a while if there is any sort of moral hazard associated with the technological increase in safety equipment. It seems that recently, we've seen a lot more instances of neck injuries also, as opposed to head injuries, which I feel would be a likely side effect of players believing their heads are protected more securely.


Padding on the outside of football helmets is not a new idea or innovation. When I played intramural tackle football at West Point in 1970, our helmets had a pad outside the shell, under a rubberized cover. It was a good idea then and is now to reduce head injuries.


Yes, alternative source to iTunes, please, I won't use iTunes, and only listen to podcasts while commuting.


You asked the question: "What Do NASCAR Drivers, Glenn Beck, and the Hitmen of the NFL Have in Common?"

It would seem you then miss the obvious answer: Too many shots to the head.

With apologies to every gag writer in the known universe. Or is that too abusive or not on-topic enough for you to post this?


Cornell I think was the last to use leather helmets. Teams used to like to play them because they couldn't get speared. The helmets had padding inside and, in effect, on the outside. How the wearers heads and necks fared I don't recall. Some have advocated no helmets -- like Gerald Ford played without. It would change how the game is played.

Colleges used to have boxing -- with soft helmets. Even wearing one, an excellent lightweight boxer fom the U of Wisconsin was killed in a fight -- and intercollegiate boxing was banned thereafter.


The podcast will be up on iTunes shortly! Keep trying!


Honestly, if rough men want to kill each other on the football field or boxing ring, why stop them?


Intercollegiate boxing is NOT banned. It's just not sanctioned by the NCAA, but rather (since 1976) by the National Collegiate Boxing Association, under the auspices of USA Boxing. A number of perfectly reputable institutions participate, including the service academies, Penn State, and UC Berkeley.

Stefan in MT

Without helmets, hits in football would probably look a lot like hits in rugby (which is played without helmets, or at best with very skimpy headgear): more controlled, with defenders wrapping up ballcarriers rather than just diving into their knees/waist/chest at maximum speed. For better or worse, hits would probably be less hard as defenders would remain in a lot more control rather than just torpedoing themselves into ballcarriers, and there would probably be fewer injuries (head, knee, and otherwise). Even just removing facemasks would, I suspect, make a big difference as players would have to worry about breaking their noses if they dove into ballcarriers' knees. It might make football less exciting to watch though.


@molly: Any ETA for an MP3 RSS URL? iTunes feeds were OK in 2006 :)


I have an idea....

Since it would be better to break your shoulders than your head/neck...what if we created shoulder pad and helmets that were ONE PIECE? That is, the "helmet" would not even touch the head, but would simply surround the players head (think of something like a Bell Curve for shape).

That way, when someone took a hit to the head, the impact would be shunted off to the shoulders. I mean, you could dive headfirst into shallow water, and you still wouldn't hurt your head, since your shoulders would keep your head from lunging up against the helmet.

Of course, there could still be padding inside the helmet...just in case.

It might also give players a greater range of head motion and something like 360 degree capability (although any player that could do this would twist his head completely off).

Wouldn't this work better?


I stand corrected on my statement on college boxing. It is not banned, only no longer sanctioned by the NCAA. I assume some sort of helmet is used by those schools still having it.


I wonder what the % of concussions in rugby is?

And to be honest, I grow weary of the helmets v. concussion discussion. If concussions are an issue, don't play. If you are willing to accept the risks (and for pros, the huge amounts of money too), accept the consequences.

And please, spare me the "they didn't know back then". I think physics was around in the 50's....They knew, they just lived in a less "touchy feely" world and played on.


Another reason why rugby players seldom get serious head (or other) injuries is the sport's lack of blocking.

The soft headgear in amateur boxing provides only limited protection against concussions, its main purpose being to reduce facial lacerations. Limiting serious head injuries in boxing would require reducing the size of gloves and the amount of hand wrapping. Gloves and wraps make it possible for boxers to land hard head punches with lesser risk of hand injury, but they don't do as much to protect against head injuries.


On the Peltzman effect, I recall reading about someplace, I think it was in Scandanavia, where they recently got rid of things like stop signs and lane markers on the roads and actually saw a reduction in traffic accidents because people drove more safely as a result. Can anybody confirm my admittedly unreliable recollection?

@15 I think the risk as a luxury good idea might have some merit. I'd be willing to bet that recreationally tempting death, for instance by sky diving, rock climbing, running with the bulls etc, is far less appealing to the extremely poor, who face real dangers like starvation or criminal violence, than the rich.

Ido Green

Very good post in the 90min for 2010 super ball...
Interesting sutff.