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Why Sports Design Matters

May 2, 2012

Junior Seau’s death today is likely to revitalize debate about concussions in the NFL, a topic that’s been much discussed in the past few years, although relatively few concrete changes have yet come about due to those investigations. However, the investigation into head trauma also serves as an opportunity to explore why the investigation of the rules of sports is important to the future these sports.

A couple of years ago, a pair of great articles were published investigating the works of Dr. Bennet Omalu and his associates into the causes of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E. Roughly speaking, C.T.E is essentially frequent, repeated concussions. Although likely out of date today, Malcolm Gladwell’s Offensive Play, and Jeanne Marie Laskas’s Game Brain are both great treatments of Dr. Omalu’s work, and well worth reading. Both also feature some curious devil’s advocacy on how football could reduce the concussion rate among players.

From Gladwell:

Would better helmets help? Perhaps. And there have been better models introduced that absorb more of the shock from a hit. But, Nowinski says, the better helmets have become—and the more invulnerable they have made the player seem—the more athletes have been inclined to play recklessly.

…the difference is that the first player saw that he was about to be hit and tensed his neck, which limited the sharp back-and-forth jolt of the head that sends the brain crashing against the sides of the skull. In essence, he was being hit not in the head but in the head, neck, and torso—an area with an effective mass three times greater. In the second case, the player didn’t see the hit coming. His head took the full force of the blow all by itself. That’s why he suffered a concussion. But how do you insure, in a game like football, that a player is never taken by surprise?

From Laskas:

“And have you seen helmets lately? In the old days of football, you had this leather cap to protect your ears. That was it. You’d never put your head in the game. You’d be knocked out after the first play! Even in the ’60s, the helmet was a light shell. The modern helmet is like a weapon.

“So I told the NFL, I said, ‘Why don’t you take the head out of the game? Just take it out of the game! Let the linemen start from a squatting position instead of getting down for head-to-head. Have them stand up like they do on pass protection. So there’s not this obligatory head contact.’

These are both questions about, essentially, the incentives that are put into place by the game’s rules. Football’s rules determine how the players interact, what kind of activities they’re encouraged, and what kinds of activities they’re allowed to perform. This isn’t just a question of penalties, although that’s a large part of the enforcement arm of any sports rule system. Rule design provides hundreds of interacting forces determining how each player acts in each situation. Gladwell makes this connection explicit in another section:

Football faced a version of this question a hundred years ago, after a series of ugly incidents. In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt called an emergency summit at the White House, alarmed, as the historian John Sayle Watterson writes, “that the brutality of the prize ring had invaded college football and might end up destroying it.” Columbia University dropped the sport entirely. A professor at the University of Chicago called it a “boy-killing, man-mutilating, money-making, education-prostituting, gladiatorial sport.” In December of 1905, the presidents of twelve prominent colleges met in New York and came within one vote of abolishing the game. But the main objection at the time was to a style of play—densely and dangerously packed offensive strategies—that, it turns out, could be largely corrected with rule changes, like the legalization of the forward pass and the doubling of the first-down distance from five yards to ten. Today, when we consider subtler and more insidious forms of injury, it’s far from clear whether the problem is the style of play or the play itself.

If we don’t understand game design, if we don’t understand how the rules interact to yield different activities on the field. As Gladwell notes, legalizing forward passes and increasing the first down distance opened up the field and seemingly reduced the brutality of the contact along the line of scrimmage. But it also introduced open-field tackles of wide receivers, and it seems unclear if the changes along the goal line actually generated any reduction in the trauma suffered by the players. Some of these interactions are obvious. The current kick-off rules are designed to produce big hits in the open field. It’s obvious players are going to get hurt. Or is it? We can back the conclusion out with logic once we’ve seen the results on the field, but the results may not always be obvious before they get out onto the field.

Even though no set of rules survives contact with the players, it’s still important that the rules committees make the best possible attempt to design their rules changes to actually resolve the problems they identify, whether those problems be that games point totals aren’t high enough or chronic head trauma. Without studying the effects of these game designs, it’s all just shots in the dark.

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3 Comments
  1. Joe Keiser permalink

    Taking the issue of head trauma in sports as a game design problem puts a pretty interesting spin on the topic; clearly there are some high-stakes consequences to poor design in the case of contact sports. I’m not too familiar with football culture–how inviolate do people consider the NFL rules of the game? I understand that there probably is going to be some design trade-offs between safety and making sure you have an exciting product on television (I recall the XFL making rule changes to increase the impact of the game for this reason) but surely we have enough data at this point to at least look at a rule book revision, and keep these guys healthy into their old age.

  2. I hadn’t thought of the XFL. Differences between rulesets for the same game is a pretty interesting area, the most obvious case is college vs. pro, although there’s also AL vs. NL in baseball. If XFL rules were specifically designed for a more “impactful” game, it would be a really interesting case study.I’ll have to see what I can find about it.
    Sports have some pretty specific constraints around exciting-ness and tradition that make it really hard to change anything. The Laska article highlights how reticent the NFL has been to even acknowledge the problem until recently.

  3. Joe Keiser permalink

    I was thinking about the opening scramble, which replaced the coin toss with a sprint and was responsible for at least one injury. But there was also apparently an extra point down rule that replaced post-touchdown kicking. That rule seems tailored to create more player collisions per game. The XFL doesn’t provide many data points though…wait, have we found the only context ever for more XFL games being a good thing? Maybe I’ve gone too far.

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