Friday, February 18, 2011

Is the NFL the New NASCAR?

USA Today ran a front-page story today about how NASCAR's ratings and popularity have plummeted since Dale Earnhardt's death 10 years ago. No drivers have died since, and the article speculates that NASCAR has overemphasized its safety improvements, to the point that fans feel that the sport has lost its exciting edge.

I see some parallels with the NFL's recent crackdown on helmet-to-helmet hits this year. This is not to mention the longer-term increase of protections on receivers and quarterbacks via strict roughing the passer and pass interference penalties. All the while, the defense becomes increasingly marginalized.

It's sort of uncomfortable to speculate on where we stand on the trade-off between death and entertainment. The NFL has had an easier time favoring the latter, because, as Robin Hanson points out, the adverse health effects are often delayed beyond the player's retirement and thus less in the public view. I've always loved how he's framed the devastation:
Surely we can see football hurts players – we often see them carried off in on stretchers. But I wonder: would we accept this harm nearly as much if we saw it all up close? Players would suffer the same average loss if each season one out of ten players just dropped dead on the playing field! (A dead 25 year old player loses 55-25 = 30 years, which is ten times the three years life lost per player per season.)