The Banning of Headgear in Boxing: The Convoluted World of Protecting Our Athletes

boxing helmets banned

I didn’t know this.

Olympic boxers are now banned from wearing protective headgear….in order to protect them from concussions.

Say what?

According to this article, the International Boxing Association (AIBA) enacted a rule that disallows “elite male boxers who compete internationally” from wearing headgear because “all available data indicated that the removal of headgear in Elite Men would result in a decreased number of concussions.”

Then I recalled a fascinating Freakanomics podcast, the renown show that features the writer Stephen J. Dubner and the economist Steven Levitt. This particular podcast was entitled “The Dangers of Safety“, and it essentially made the same case, citing the NFL as a case in point. Here’s an exchange between Robert Cantu, a professor of neurosurgery at Boston University, and Dubner explaining how the football helmet actually increases risk of injury.

Cantu: The way, for instance, in football in my opinion that we’re going to have to address this problem, is to eliminate the helmet as the initial point of contact in the act of tackling and even to a certain extent in blocking as well. Quite frankly, when people didn’t have the helmets of the security that there are today, didn’t have the face mask, and you had to worry about your nose winding up in your ear, from using your face in a tackle, you didn’t use your face, obviously.

Dubner: So as the safety equipment gets better, our behavior becomes more aggressive?

Cantu: Absolutely. Very much more aggressive, very much more violent. We’ve seen the same thing happen in ice hockey, as well. When you put face and head protection on people they’re not as worried about taking blows to that area. And so the aggressive nature of the activity is greatly enhanced.

freakonomics Dubner and Levitt

The economist Levitt even had a name for it – The Peltzman Effect, named after Sam Peltzman. “…it’s the idea that you can put in a safety device and people can then feel so much safer in the activity they’re engaging in, that they take more and more risk, to the point where you actually have the opposite effect, that by putting in the safety device, you actually lead to more people being hurt or killed. And the classic example people talk about is seatbelts in cars. And the idea would be without a seatbelt, you feel at risk, and with a seat belt you drive with a much more dangerous fashion, and that could lead to more deaths.”

So, does the Peltzman Effect in reverse come into play with AIBA’s decision? When boxers don’t wear protective headgear, are there fewer concussions as a consequence? The jury is still out. But there has been one unintended consequence – the number of cuts and incidences of bleeding has jumped significantly according to this article. Boxers who had always worn headgear now have to deal with facial cuts so bad they’re forced out of tournaments.

The problems of cuts has become such a concern that AIBA actually reconsidered the rule in 2014, but decided in the end to uphold the ban. So at the Rio Olympics next year, boxers for the first time in decades will not wear headgear…for their safety…or maybe…because it makes for better television viewing.

Brody Blair boxer
Brody Blair of Canada during his men’s middleweight fight against Benny Muziyo of Zambia at the Commonwealth Games.