By Jack Becker
The football world has used a variety of methods to make the sport safer: Compare modern football to football a century ago, when at least 18 people died playing the game in 1905 alone and Teddy Roosevelt had to intervene. In recent years, concussions and brain trauma have become football’s scarlet letter. While leagues have already made changes to prevent brain injuries, there’s more to be done.
This post considers the application of Lawrence Lessig’s New Chicago School approach to regulation to the prevention of concussions (and other types of brain damage generalized under the word “concussions” for simplicity) in football.
Lessig’s New Chicago School
Lessig’s New Chicago School approach, developed in 1998, details the regulation of an entity (represented by a dot) by laws, norms, the market, and architecture. Lessig illustrates the application of these “regulators” with the example of regulating someone who wants to smoke cigarettes:
The legal application is simple, since laws directly forbid people under 18 from buying cigarettes and prevent anyone from smoking in certain locations. Norms, like those that stigmatize smoking in someone’s house without asking, are powerful as well. The price and quality of cigarettes are determined by market forces and also regulate a smoker’s decision-making. And finally, the architecture of cigarettes refers to cigarette technology, such as smokeless cigarettes, which make it easier to smoke in certain places, and cigarettes with strong scents, which do the opposite.
While regulating football players is facially different than Lessig’s example of regulating smokers and his focus on regulating people in cyberspace, the New Chicago School framework provides insights to preventing concussions.
The laws, or rules, of football are designed by leagues/associations instead of legislatures, allowing them to nimbly respond to issues and safety risks. The major leagues have clearly responded to concerns about concussions. Rules exist at every level constraining practices that can lead to concussions, such as helmet-to-helmet contact and the use of the helmet in making contact with an opponent.
In fact, each major league has made preventing these types of hits a “point of emphasis” for 2021. The NFL is focusing on its “Use of the Helmet” rule that’s been in place since 2018. The NCAA “continues to embrace” its targeting rules that can result in immediate disqualification of penalized players. The NFHS stresses its targeting, defenseless player, illegal helmet contact, and spearing rules to help minimize risk in high school games. And model youth rules promulgated by USA Football incorporate the points of emphasis developed by the NCAA and the NFHS; it’s safe to say that these include rules to prevent concussions.
Rules outside of the game itself also impact player safety. During the 2017 NFL season, out of a total of 281 concussions, 46 came from preseason games, 45 from preseason practices, and 11 from regular season practices. Getting rid of preseason games could mean fewer concussions, even if more occur during the regular season. Similarly, reducing contact in practices, where most concussions occur in NCAA and high school football, could mean fewer concussions. The Ivy League eliminated full contact practices in 2016, and a majority of states limit or ban full contact high school practices.
Norms, the Market, and Architecture
Rules are a great place to start, but adding in norms, the market, and architecture can help create the full regulatory package. Each of these methods are already used to regulate players, but there’s plenty more to add:
One side of norms is education, which has been a major focus outside of rules. If players can learn proper tackling technique from an early age, then the root cause of preventable concussions would presumably be solved. Unfortunately, in 2016 The New York Times reported that the premier initiative to do this, the NFL-funded and USA Football-operated “Heads Up Football” program, actually had no effect on concussion rates. But this shouldn’t cut against all educational efforts to improve safety. Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll made ripples with his 2014 educational tackling video. After all, the best way to replace an old tackling technique is to create a better one.
Another side of norms is the set of accepted practices that players follow. The NCAA takes a norms-based approach in part of its 2021 Football Rules Book, stating:
It is noted that the Code emphasizes the following unethical practices: “Using the helmet as a weapon. The helmet is for protection of the player…” and “players and coaches should emphasize the elimination of targeting and initiating contact against a defenseless opponent and/or with the crown of the helmet.” Every participant in the collegiate football scene shares a responsibility for ethical conduct that enhances the future of this American tradition.
This is an interesting development. After all, other penalties like intentional grounding aren’t considered a violation of ethics. The NCAA might be on to something here.
When Bleacher Report interviewed NFL players about the “unwritten rules of football” (or football’s norms), the universal first rule was to never intentionally injure another player. While injuries are part of the game, one player described the “fine line” between hard hits and dirty hits. So what does cross the line? Intentional grounding clearly doesn’t, but cheap shots after the whistle certainly do. Hard hits are in the clear, but what about “giving him the business”? Answers may depend on the era and the injury-potential.
Crackback blocks, horse-collar tackles, and blocking at the knees (whether through a chop block, peel back block, or other low block) were all previously allowed in football. Eventually, the NFL and other leagues banned them to varying degrees to prevent injuries. And this ban extended beyond the rules because of the injury implications. For example, Brett Favre was heavily criticized for a dangerous (and illegal) block in 2009. He was criticized not for breaking the rules, but for risking the safety, the career, and the livelihood of another player. It was a norms-based critique.
Some of the hits that are especially dangerous to brain health, like helmet-to-helmet contact on a defenseless player, have likely already crossed the norms line. But there is a wide spectrum of other hits that are more or less accepted. For a player who leads with their head in tackling, for example, should other players disapprove even if the offender is only sacrificing their own health? Or what about linemen whose head-to-head contact is subconcussive but constantly damaging (one commenter even proposes requiring linemen to start from a standing position to reduce these head collisions)? Shifting the line of stigmatization to cover more and more of this conduct (without detrimentally changing the game) could help push it out of football. And for players who are concerned about their health, this is a way to stop relying on leagues to fix the issue. Of course, there are plenty of issues. In a classic prisoner’s dilemma, even if it’s in their best interest, players may continue using head-first technique to avoid any disadvantages if they think other players will continue using their heads. But at least for the NFL, there’s a union that may be able to help with this.
The market’s impact on players’ behavior in the concussion arena is not entirely clear. Football leagues and networks have seemed to move away from highlighting big hits, especially those that involve head-to-head contact. Take, for instance, the 2003-2006 “Jacked Up!” segment on ESPN. The segment featured the biggest hits from the week of NFL games, and rumors suggest that its cancellation was related to the emergence of research documenting the negative effects of concussions. This seems like a conscious effort to reduce market incentives for big hits. With modern YouTube and other Internet sites, however, anyone can still share a list of “bone-crushing hits” with the world.
The best market-based solution may actually come from fans and college recruiters. While fans and recruiters love an old-school, physical, hard-nosed player who doesn’t shy away from contact, they typically have a lower opinion of “dirty players.” Teams value talent, but having an unpopular player can stir unwanted trouble. If norms change so fans and recruiters consider hitting with the helmet to be unethical, a helmet hitter could drop in market value. These types of market incentives are certainly more limited than rules and norms, but they allow everyday fans to have an impact on the sport.
Despite the potential benefits of regulation by rules, norms, and the market, these approaches all rely on players voluntarily changing their actions. Yet, critics doubt the effectiveness of tackling techniques that remove involvement of the head. And players stress that you can’t unteach the instinct they’ve built over years, even if you penalize or disincentivize the behavior.
Architecture brings up interesting alternatives in regulating players to prevent concussions. For example, instead of altering the game or players’ beliefs, leagues, teams, and players could focus on altering the players themselves. Researchers have studied the impact of vision training, neck strength, and reaction time on concussion rate. If improvements like these help prevent concussions, then leagues, teams, and players could all jump on-board. This is especially true for younger players, who may not have sufficient on-field awareness and whose helmets may be disproportionately heavy. However, the trend of players getting faster and stronger may result in a faster game, harder hits, and the need for even stronger necks and faster reaction times.
Helmets are also a fascinating consideration. Helmet companies and researchers are dedicated to making high-tech, protective helmets. While this is helpful for preventing some concussions, like those from head-to-ground contact, the net effect of better helmets is unclear. Once facemasks and protective helmets became standard equipment, tackling and other techniques changed to involve the head. Helmets can make players feel invincible. To combat this, some have proposed taking helmets out of the game completely to help prevent both big collisions and thousands of small collisions, both of which can result in brain damage. Instead of turning to penalties or norms, players would be forced to choose between changing their technique and breaking their nose.
Realistically, concussions will always be a part of football, just like they’ll likely always be a part of volleyball and soccer. After all, it’s hard to make a rule that penalizes the ground for hitting a player’s head too hard. And while you might be able to regulate the ground a little bit, you can regulate players thoroughly.
Football participation numbers are already plummeting as parents and players worry about the risk of irreparable brain damage. Though the changes above may seem infeasible, unrealistic, or drastic, football should experiment with solutions that help ensure it remains a core part of American culture, before it’s too late.