Lessig’s modalities, football helmets, and “cerebellum custard”

I’ve been thinking about Larry Lessig’s modalities for an upcoming piece I have coming out on copyright enforcement. And because my beloved Pittsburgh Steelers are playing the Dolphins of my adoptive hometown today, I’m also thinking about football.  As any football fan knows, the league is concerned over head injuries and last week fined several players a total of $175K for hits to the head. Is this a solution, or just a publicity band-aid? Sorry, NFL, it’s the latter.

Today’s New York Times carries a really well-written editorial by former Bronco Nate Jackson. He says:

Before the 1950s, when they wore soft helmets without face masks, players didn’t lead with their heads. They dived at opponents’ legs and corralled them with their arms. Leading with the head meant facial disfigurement and lots of stitches. But once leather was replaced by hard plastic, enclosing the head in protective armor, all bets were off. Couple that with the size of today’s players and the speed of the modern game, and you have a recipe for cerebellum custard.

In reading it, I couldn’t help but think of Lessig. Jackson notes that part of the problem is that modern helmets make it easier to make aggressive, head-first hits. He also notes that a player’s “manhood” will be questioned if he shies away from helmet contact.  In Lessig’s terms, regulation is done by the combined interactions of laws, social norms, markets, and architecture (or “code” in the case of computers).

The helmet problem is a paradigmatic case of the difficulties of regulation. Even if NFL rules (“law“) prohibit certain kinds of contact, it still takes place. So the NFL is trying a band-aid solution through fines and possible suspension (“markets“).

But I doubt that the problem will be solved merely through the occasional penalty or fine. A major reason for the massive amount of head hits and injuries is because of social “norms,” namely, players and coaches who expect aggressive play. Jackson says “The N.F.L. could also try educating coaches, who now believe that a headless hit is an ineffectual one, about the perils of head-first tackling, in hopes that over time safer techniques would become the norm.” (Note the use of “norm” there?!) Maybe some education will help, but I suspect that “prisoner’s dilemma” thinking will prevent any coach or player from voluntarily abandoning techniques that might risk a won-loss record. That’s not a justification, it’s a fact. When a player’s manhood is defined by his aggressiveness and lack of fear, then fines, penalties, and best practices won’t cut it. When a coach’s success is defined by his won/loss record, he’ll put winning first. And when a league’s bottom-line stems largely from hard hits, it may apply band-aids as long as possible, blinding itself to the real source of the problem.

The source of the problem? Ultimately, it’s one of “architecture” – here, the physical architecture of the game. It’s what enabled more aggressive play, as well as the success that gave rise to the norms of let-slip-the-dogs-of-war head-butting Havoc. And that, in turn, brings us back to law. But here the law is one the NFL can’t fight. It’s physics: force = mass x acceleration. Combining helmeted heads with bigger, faster players, and you have a recipe for what Jackson aptly calls “cerebellum custard.”

What’s the solution? Jackson toys with the idea of doing away with helmets altogether and returning to the earlier “rag days” of “bloody noses.” Maybe. But in a day of 300-lb. linemen, that’s a recipe for instant death, not instant replay. My instinct is that the NFL’s desire to make money and its fear of losing its fan base will outweigh any meaningful efforts to reform the game. As Jackson says:

But stiffer on-field penalties, fines, suspensions, seminars, summit meetings, press releases — these are knee-jerk public-relations reactions that will do little. The only way to prevent head injuries in football is no more football. It is a violent game by design. The use of helmets plays a critical role in creating that violence. The players understand the risks, and the fans enjoy watching them take those risks. Changing the rules enough to truly safeguard against head injuries would change the game beyond recognition. It wouldn’t be football anymore.

Short of better helmets, smaller players, or meaningful changes to player/coach/league norms, I am not hopeful. But being a indirect part of the problem, at 1PM, I and millions of others will be watching the gladiators go at it on CBS.

Maybe we really are the Romans.

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