American football and rugby are very similar contact sports. The difference, mainly, between them is that American footballers must wear helmets and a lot of padding, while rugby players wear basically nothing. Recently, there has been a surge of concussion related incidents in the NFL, and a push towards lowering the risk of concussions. The NFL is investing in creating more protective helmets to prevent concussions in its players. On the other side, rugby isn’t having, and has never had a concussion problem before. But, if both are contact sports, why does the sport without helmets have less head injuries than the one with helmets?
The answer may be surprising at first. The reason comes in the form of something called risk homeostasis, or risk compensation. Like what we talked about in Andrew’s class the other day, humans subconsciously weigh risks and rewards in their heads before committing an act. This appears in football when one player is hitting another. “When a player has a body part that’s protected, and the contact with somebody else is imminent, you’re going to put your protected body part first, just reflexively.” Says Dr. Erik Swartz, a kinesiology professor at the University of New Hampshire. So, when football players are going to hit each other, they naturally lead with their head, since it is so well protected, or so they think.
So, why are there so many more concussions in football than rugby?
The answer: tackling style.
When a rugby player tackles another player, he instinctively knows not to go for the head, because it will hurt. This reflex is not there when football players hit each other, because a sense of “invincibility” develops in the players mind. The same is true about MMA fighters and boxers. MMA fighters are proven to punch their opponents less hard than boxers, because they subconsciously hold back because of the little padding they have on their hands. While they think they want to hurt the person they are fighting, subconsciously they know it is another human, and they hold back. Boxers do not. The glove on the hand of a boxer gives the same sense of “invincibility” as a helmet on a football player. They don’t believe they can hurt their opponents as much as an MMA fighter believes he can.
A football player can use his head like a weapon, and not believe anything will happen because of the helmet they are wearing. This has lead to the NFL investing greater in better head protection. But, is that what’s going to stop concussions?
Many people believe the solution to the concussion problem is taking away the helmets.
There is a pad-less football league in America called the A7FL, which is a 7-on-7-football league for semi-pro players trying to stay in game shape. The game is full contact, and according to the players, very much less concussion-prone than the NFL. This is because the players know not to go for each other’s heads, because they don’t have helmets.
In my opinion, the best thing to solve the concussion problem in the NFL would be to remove the helmets. The problem is, this is very unrealistic. I think the best solution would be to teach the players how to hit without teaching them to use their heads as weapons.