Concussions, Defenseless Receivers & Moral Hazard: A Rule that Would Work

The game of football (aka American gridiron) is at risk to a slow decline as parents are increasingly likely to prohibit their sons from playing.  The NFL, and to a lesser extent collegiate and high school leagues, have changed rules intended to make the game safer.  Unfortunately, the rule changes fundamentally fail to grasp the strategic nature of the game, and thus create new problems while at the same time failing to improve safety.  I propose a rule that will improve safety without jeopardizing the fundamental violence (aka hitting) of the game.  I begin with the new rule, which would (1) replace the unhelpful “defenseless receiver rule,” and (2) make the “head to head contact” rule unnecessary, and then explain below why it is the best option for improving player safety vis-a-vis head and spinal injury.

Any player, whether on offense or defense, who lowers his head in anticipation of a collision with another player, such that his helmet (not his facemask) makes initial contact with the other player, shall be disbarred from play for the remainder of that series (i.e., until the ball changes possession). No penalty yardage will be assessed on this foul. A disbarred player who returns to the field before the series has expired shall be ejected from the game.

The “defenseless receiver” rule errs by assuming that changing the incentives of a single player will improve the situation.  In a highly competitive, strategic game, that will never work.  Back in the day a QB was responsible for not “hanging his receiver out to dry,” which is to say throwing him into a vicious hit: when a receiver was lit up it was the QB’s fault.  We need to return to that world: the defenseless receiver penalty actually gives the QB an incentive to throw his receiver into a vicious hit: doing so provides a 15 yard penalty and automatic first down.  I do not have the data to do an analysis, but I suspect such an effort would show that QBs are throwing more aggressively into hits than they used to.

A critical component of my proposal is that it hits players and coaches hard: players are loathe to come off the field and coaches are loathe to put in a backup.  Forcing a player who puts both himself and his opponent at risk by tackling improperly (using his helmet) to sit out the remainder of that series of downs is “incentive compatible” for both the coach and the player.

Why include “no penalty yardage will be assessed”?  This will prevent officials become reluctant to make the call, which is critically important, and especially so late in the game.
Back in the day the QB was responsible for not “hanging out his receiver to dry.”  The defenseless receiver rule, while well intentioned, has not only eliminated the QB’s responsibility, but actually reversed it.

As a high school flanker and tight end I was laid out more than once catching balls, and while I even had a couple of nice (legal) crack-back blocks, and twice while playing ice hockey laid opponents out who I last saw being wheeled to an ambulance on a stretcher.  If you have never played you are very unlikely to understand the joy and adrenaline rush that comes from such a hit (including bouncing back after taking one).  That’s right, joy.  Those moments stand out as among the most joyful and memorable in my life.  It is very difficult to get a clean, direct hit upon an opponent who is trying to avoid it.  They are few and far between, and an integral part of the game as it has been played for decades.

That said, use of the head as the point of contact has to be reduced.  I believe this is so less because of concussions and long term brain damage than because of spinal injuries, which affect dramatically more high school players (i.e., a much larger number of people).  See this 2010 article in Time, this 1996 study of spinal injuries in LA, or this page from a non-profit dedicated to former players with spinal injuries.  But both are major health issues, and the recent rule changes, as well meaning as they are, are fundamentally flawed, and need to be changed.  Please tweet, reblog, or link to this post if you agree that the proposal warrants consideration.

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About Will H. Moore

I am a political science professor who also contributes to Political Violence @ a Glance and sometimes to Mobilizing Ideas . Twitter: @WilHMoo
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