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.


rugby players dont wear helmets at al, nor padding for the most part. Something about having a helmet makes you take more risks, and hit harder. Why not take all helmets off?


Love the podcast! Keep up the good work!

Hal Porter

I never played football as a kid with equipment (I'm 60). Organized only tag. loved the game, at that age I could body fake my opponents and just run around them. Game stopped being fun when I got big enough to hurt and be hurt by other people. especially that service club rivalry "touch" game with what turned out to be Miami High's second team (first team national champions, Steve Spurrier quarterback). Nor where these guys following any rules.

Never played again (16 y.o.) no longer fun, no longer a kids game. But I hesitate to think what a disaster if we had been wearing equipment. Always wondered, even then, if not better without helmets, or maybe those old fashioned leather ones just to prevent abrasions. Should it even be a H.S. game? Joints growing, brain still reforming, etc. But no H.S., no college, no pros, no TV, no social life with everybody meeting up in small towns on friday night in the fall, catching up on business, transacting, whatever. If you want to see a social scene, stand around outside the stadium on a nice fall day in front of Columbia's Baker Field. Many of the power elite are standing around chatting, only some of which is about the good old days, much of which is pollinating deals that may sprout in the future.



First: the podcast is great, thank you for making it. definitely got a good laugh at the "i could start hiding my own easter eggs" comment.

Second: The only thing that troubled me was your closing argument with regard to abortion (seatbelt) as a solution to unprotected sex (driving in a dangerous manner).

The only reason I have an issue with this is that the logical progression is difficult to follow and a bit of a jump versus an otherwise well presented argument.

In a world of understood risk (ie: understanding sex makes you pregnant), would this not also be an argument against finding cures for certain "preventable" medical concerns such as the research to cure diseases that are propogated by way of sexual interaction?

I will leave it at that for now. Just a reaction.
Podcast is a great listen and fantastic addition to my commute.


ugh glenn beck... no thx


What's the music that is played during the outro? It's nice. Written for the podcast? Off-the-shelf stock stuff? Can I get it on iTunes?


Brilliant podcast. I work for public health (administrative side) and this kind of thing is what the public needs to hear, and I'm not just referring to preventing brain injury. Rather, I think the topics that you will be discussing on your podcast will be the kind that will increase the kind of self awareness that will improve decision making on issues of health and so much more. Keep it up!


Along the moral hazard lines, I was wondering what the real major difference is between the Peltzman Effect and moral hazard? I was really surprised that those two words didn't show up on the podcast at all.


I liked the podcast; I am curious about one thing, however. Helmets were the focus of the day, but I think mouth guards should have been mentioned. Almost all of the people I have talked to about them don't realize that mouth guards defend against concussions, not broken teeth. I am quite certain that a mouth guard is the only reason I have never had a concussion after playing football and ice hockey for many years.

They act as a shock absorber, since when you are hit hard you usually bite down. Slamming your enameled teeth together sends quite a shock through your jaw to your brain, not unlike what happens to a martial artist when they fail to break wood or concrete with their heads or other body parts. All of the force they brought to bear leaps right back into them.

Thanks and I look forward to future podcasts!

Adolescent therapy

Really caring and informative post,as many death causes due to head injurious.Highly recommended.


Why did you guys stop? Has the podcast been discontinued?


Can you share the data supporting Steven Levitt's statement about the danger of driving your car ("If nothing were to kill you except driving your car and all you did was driving your car day and night, day and night, you'd expect to live for 250 years") ?


My way of thinking these things is that a person seeks to maximize the value of reward/risk. When a new invention (like seat belts) comes along and reduces a person's risk, they in turn readjust the risk reward ratio to what it had been before.

To disagree with Dubner, I believe that people are not lulled into a false sense of security, they merely are readjusting their behavior to maximize their risk/reward ratio.


The Listen Now button does not work on my windows 8 machine. I get an endless
sideways barbershop poll graphic and no sound