Optimal Sanctions for NFL Hits

Cite this Article
Joshua D. Wright, Optimal Sanctions for NFL Hits, Truth on the Market (October 19, 2010), https://truthonthemarket.com/2010/10/19/optimal-sanctions-for-nfl-hits/

In response to a week with what the NFL perceives to be a large number of tackles causing injury, the league is ready to announce a new policy in which players will be suspended for certain hits the league deems to dangerous or too likely to cause injury.  This is a change from the NFL’s former policy in which the default rule was to impose a fine on players.

In particular, during games this week there were three hits that drew the attention of the league.   As this ESPN story describes the plays in question:

  • The Eagles’ DeSean Jackson and the Falcons’ Dunta Robinson were knocked out of their game after a frightening collision in which Robinson launched himself head first to make a tackle. Both sustained concussions.
  • Ravens tight end Todd Heap took a vicious hit from Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather that Heap called “one of those hits that shouldn’t happen.”
  • The Steelers’ James Harrison sidelined two Browns players with head injuries after jarring hits. An NFL spokesman said one of the tackles, on Joshua Cribbs, was legal. The Browns were more upset about Harrison’s hit on Mohamed Massaquoi, which the league is reviewing.

On Tuesday morning, an NFL VP of Football Operations announced the likely change in policy:

We’ve got to get the message to players that these devastating hits and head shots will be met with a very necessary higher standard of accountability. We have to dispel the notion that you get one free pass in these egregious or flagrant shots.

The article also notes that while there have been suspensions for hits deemed “egregious” or “flagrant” in the past, the default rule has been fines or ejections.  Hold aside the interesting questions about what is causing the increase in these types of hits (during the Monday Night Football broadcast, Hall of Fame QB Steve Young hypothesized that the problem was incompetent quarterbacking and WR play in the form of failing to distinguish man from zone defenses, leading to more frequent situations in which wide receivers are catching the ball in vulnerable positions).  Also holding aside the appropriateness of the NFL policy for a moment, which strikes me at first blush as an overreaction to the events of a single week and inextricably intertwined with the larger and much more complicated issue of concussions in football, the announced policy change in presents some interesting economic issues concerning optimal sanctions.

There is at least some anecdotal evidence that fines are not a sufficient deterrent at current levels.  On an television broadcast, former San Diego Charger and New England Patriot Safety (and notorious hard hitter) Rodney Harrison, who was fined more than $200,000 during his career and also suspended for one game in 2002, argued that fines do not deter:

You didn’t get my attention when you fined me 5 grand, 10 grand, 15 grand.  You got my attention when I got suspended and I had to get away from my teammates and I disappointed my teammates from not being there. But you have to suspend these guys. These guys are making millions of dollars.

Assuming that the league seeks to deter these types of hits back to the optimal level (surely the league doesn’t think it is zero, right?), what is the optimal sanction?  Conventional optimal deterrence theory would suggest that a first blush answer of increasing fines.  Indeed, the fine can duplicate one dimension of the suspension, i.e. a fine can be set so that the player loses the equivalent of one game’s salary, two, three, and so on. The mere fact that players make a lot of money does not, alone, favor the use of suspensions over fines.  Fines can be calibrated.  If the league’s fear is that players perceive “one free shot” before any serious penalties occur, the first offense can be assigned a greater penalty.

The case for suspensions seems to fall on the argument that players will respond more readily to suspensions than fines, and in turn, that there is not a level of fines that will generate equivalent deterrence to the suspension.

As Rodney Harrison points out, however, the case for a unique deterrent effect for suspension involves reputational sanctions.   A suspension lets the team down.  But one suspects that this reputational sanction can really only be harnessed by the league for the purposes of deterrence if it is suspending players for truly intentionally and egregious hits that the player could have avoided.

Herein lies at least one challenge for the league.  Much of the commentary surrounding the controversial plays from this week and in prior cases involve tackles in which the defensive player intends to tackle properly, but because players are moving objects, either makes helmet-to-helmet contact or the defensive players head moves from his target’s chest to his head during the process of the tackle.  I suspect that if the league enforces the rule to encompass those plays, the suspension will weaken any reputational sanction against the player imposed by the team (or fans) for “letting the team down.” Another effect of is that these sorts of error costs in imposing the stiffer sanction threaten to chill beneficial conduct (in this case, aggressive play that consumers of the sport value and outweighs its costs but might expose the player to the sanction).

The flip side of the reputational sanction story, of course, is that it appears that players who are willing to sacrifice their bodies (and perhaps, the duration of their careers) to play this way are held in high esteem by their teammates regardless of fines.

Consider again the case of the Steelers’ James Harrison,who has been fined on numerous occasions and is the former NFL Defensive Player of the Year.  After this week’s potentially-suspension-or-fine inducing hits, one teammate observed “You see a guy like that, knocking guys out like that … he’s a man on a mission … He sets the tempo for everybody.”  To the extent the underlying activity is a net gain to the team, there is an analogy here to sanctions for executives who engage in price-fixing.  So long as the sanction is small enough that the benefit from entering the cartel is greater than the costs to the firm, it is unlikely that a reputational penalty will occur.  To the contrary, the activity is one that produces gains for shareholders.  Here, Harrison is viewed in high esteem by his teammates — fines and/or suspensions or otherwise — precisely because the conduct benefits the team in ways visible to outsiders as well as in less tangible ways.

It strikes me that there is a substantial danger that the case for suspensions over increased fines — assuming inadequate deterrence — depends on the existence of a reputational effect that is both tenuous and likely to be diminished the more the policy is enforced.  If that is true — at least one predictable consequence of the policy change is over-deterrence, i.e. a sport that reduces not only the undesirable hits it is targeting but also goes without much of what the league, teams, and fans considerable desirable.

I’m not making any sweeping proclamations about the desirability on normative grounds.   As I mentioned above, I tend to view the league’s announcement as a short-term overreaction to a handful of plays last week.   As a football fan, I don’t like the proposed changes.  But more narrowly in terms of desired impact, I’m not sure the league is going to get what it expects if it shifts from penalties to suspensions in the manner described in the press and by NFL officials thus far.  And in any event, its a good excuse to write about optimal sanctions, which is a topic I’ve been thinking and writing about lately.

And for irrelevant but complete disclosure, I’ll add that I am a Steelers fan who *happens* to believe that neither of James Harrison’s hits warrant suspension or fines.