A couple of weeks later I read another take on the Hughes death in the Financial Times. Matthew Engel motivated his piece by quoting someone who pointed out that it was "a workplace accident". It is hard to argue with the cold reasoning that it was a workplace accident. However, it is interesting that Engel and myself have chosen to introduce the topic through the words of somebody else. Sports deaths seem to be a little different to your more usual workplace accident (as Tom Fordyce, BBC chief sports writer explains here).
It is not that economists are strangers to taking an unpopular line when it comes to sport. They are usually amongst the first to confront 'conventional wisdom' when writing about the use of taxpayers' money. Stefan Szymanski puts this neatly when providing a beginner's guide to the sports economic literature in his book Playbooks and Checkbooks. Szymanski introduced the literature as follows: "Here is a roll call of some of the hero-economists who have dispassionately reported the evidence on the impact of major sporting events, without fear or favour, often suffering personal abuse, and frequently denying themselves the opportunity to line their own pockets for the price of saying what the politicians would like to hear". While these economists might be unpopular and financially poorer, at least they are on ground that economists are expected to occupy. Economists talking about the behaviour of individuals in sport and player safety is not as readily accepted. Yet, some of the best economists have considered the issues.
The Nobel laureate, Thomas C. Schelling, in his 1996 Presidential Address to the Eastern Economic Association contemplated the rationality of the batting decision in baseball. He said "If one had decided, fully aware of the risk, to lean into the plate, bat poised, awaiting a white object traveling ninety miles an hour towards one's face, ducking away at the last moment may be "irrational." Or maybe not doing so is irrational." He went on to point out that the ducking away may be an involuntary action and, therefore, have a questionable link to rationality as economists usually define it. The decision might have more to do with "fear" rather than a risk calculation (Schelling notes how the word "Fear" is the opening word, sentence, and paragraph of Leonard Koppett's book A Thinking Fan's Guide to Baseball). Schelling was concerned with how we cope rationally with these departures from rationality as individuals and as a society.
He addressed similar issues when he contemplated why some ice hockey players choose not wear helmets in his book Micromotives and Macrobehaviour. (Schelling's hockey examples were taken from 1969.) He explained that when the decision to wear a helmet is left to the player then the player's decision is open to a variety of influences - including the proportion of other players that decide to wear a helmet. He classified the problem as a multi-person Prisoner's Dilemma game. In this context, Schelling argued how it might be appropriate to force players to wear the protective head gear. Of course, such a change can influence the behaviour of the players. It is possible that there will be a Peltzman effect. However, few would argue that the possible presence of a Peltzman effect should hinder all regulatory changes designed to improve the safety of a sport.