After years of too little attention, the subject of head injuries in sports, and how to prevent them, is now what Twitter would call a "trending topic."
First came the turnaround in attitudes toward NFL player head injuries, and the helmet-to-helmet tackles and hits that increase the risk of those injuries. Then came the discussion about skier Lindsey Vonn's continued participation in the World Cup last week, despite clear indications and admissions on her part that she was still skiing behind the course and "in a fog" after suffering a concussion in a training accident. And now, there's the U.S. lacrosse league debating whether or not the girls -- who now only have to wear protective eye gear—should be required to wear helmets as well.
Girls' lacrosse has dramatically different rules than the boys' game: body checks are illegal, as are certain stick checks, and there is a regulated safety zone around each girl's head. Nevertheless, research quoted in a New York Timesarticle today concluded that when it comes to concussions, lacrosse ranks third in female sports (behind basketball and soccer). In addition, despite the less-aggressive nature and rules of the girls' game, girls' lacrosse has an in-game concussion rate only 15 percent lower than the boys.
So if concussions are an issue in girls' lacrosse, the argument goes, we should require girls to wear more protective headgear. After all, the boys' helmets, intended to reduce skull fracture and intracranial bleeding, are thought to reduce the number of concussions, as well.
But does the addition of extra safety gear actually reduce the risk of the injuries it is designed to prevent? Well, yes ... and no. Which is what fuels the debate on the issue.
Taken by itself, it's easy enough to prove that wearing a helmet, like wearing a seat belt, decreases the chance or severity of injury in an impact. But humans are far more complex creatures than crash test dummies. And so the true impact of safety equipment becomes far more complex, as well.
In his 1995 book Risk, British researcher John Adams spelled out several reasons why safety equipment does not always increase safety the way its designers or legislators think it will. The first is a phenomenon called "risk compensation," in which humans respond to additional safety equipment by taking greater risks than they did when they felt less protected. For example, Adams said, while seat belts unquestionably gave a person better protection if they were in a collision, the chances of being in a collision went up in places with seat belt laws, because seat-belted drivers took more risks in how they drove.
For all the time and discussion space we devote to the goal of eliminating accidents or injuries, Adams suggests that people have "risk thermostats," and that we all adjust our behavior to maintain the level of risk in our lives that we find acceptable. We all compensate for the extra margin provided by safety equipment to some degree, and some of us will push the new boundaries further than others. All of which means that safety equipment often doesn't make as much of a difference as its proponents believe it will.
Indeed, there are many who argue that mandatory helmets, and increasingly strong helmets, have actually exacerbated the problem of head injury in sports ranging from boys' lacrosse and ice hockey to professional football. So perhaps helmets for female lacrosse players really are a bad idea, as U.S. Lacrosse (the sport's governing body) argues.
So what's the solution? In many cases, improving safety has had more to do with changing a group's culture and attitudes about high-risk activities than it does any specific technological advance -- especially in individual sports or hobbies.
A prominent example is the Cirrus Design company (a company profiled by James Fallows in his Atlanticarticle and subsequent bookFree Flight). In an effort to build a safer aircraft, Cirrus included a full-airplane parachute and vastly improved "glass" cockpit displays in its Cirrus airplane. But when the airplane was first introduced, it actually had a significantly higher-than-average fatality rate, because pilots -- comforted by the extra technology and safety systems -- "compensated" by pushing the aircraft into weather they wouldn't otherwise have undertaken. In the end, the company was able to bring its accident rates down by requiring additional training and working to change the culture of its buyers—at least to some degree.
The field of SCUBA diving also vastly reduced its accident rate over several decades by changing its group attitudes toward risk. Once upon a time, diving was a macho sport where the toughest regularly pushed the limits. Today, attitudes about pushing the limits have changed. Dive without a buddy, push your depth or time limits, and a diver today is likely to be seen as stupid, not brave.
Notably, the NFL is now taking a similar approach toward head injuries. Instead of simply improving the cushioning in players' helmets, the NFL is trying to change the league's culture, rules and consequences related to hits to the head, or tackles "leading" with a player's helmet. How well that works remains to be seen, of course. But the popular image and standard for what's "admirable" and "acceptable" in tackling technique has already changed dramatically, even in the breathtakingly short span of a single season.
But girls' lacrosse already has a restrictive set of rules regarding contact. And most of the concussions its players suffer come from accidental contact and falls, not intentionally aggressive maneuvering. So is it a different case? Could helmets actually make it safer?
"I think helmets encourage you to push the limits of whatever the rules are," one high school athlete responded, when I asked the question. "If you're only allowed one kind of hit, you'll hit as hard as you can in that one way. But given that girls' lacrosse has so many rules restricting contact, [helmets] might actually help."
Of course, given the complexities of how humans assess and respond to risk, and the fact that lacrosse players are unlikely to be timid or risk-adverse by nature, it's also a fair bet that whatever safety margin helmets provide would—at best—be narrowed by some amount by compensating behavior on the part of the players. Which means at some point in the future, U.S. Lacrosse, like Cirrus and the NFL, may find itself compensating for that compensation through more complex solutions than the seemingly-simple answer of a helmet.
The paper of record’s inaccurate reporting on a nonexistent criminal investigation was a failure that should entail more serious consequences.
I have read The New York Times since I was a teenager as the newspaper to be trusted, the paper of record, the definitive account. But the huge embarrassment over the story claiming a criminal investigation of Hillary Clinton for her emails—leading the webpage, prominent on the front page, before being corrected in the usual, cringeworthy fashion of journalists who stonewall any alleged errors and then downplay the real ones—is a direct challenge to its fundamental credibility. And the paper’s response since the initial huge error was uncovered has not been adequate or acceptable.
This is not some minor mistake. Stories, once published, take on a life of their own. If they reinforce existing views or stereotypes, they fit perfectly into Mark Twain’s observation, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” (Or perhaps Twain never said it, in which case the ubiquity of that attribution serves to validate the point.) And a distorted and inaccurate story about a prominent political figure running for president is especially damaging and unconscionable.
A newly discovered artifact buried with one of Jamestown’s most prominent leaders suggests he could have been a crypto-Catholic.
After 400 years in the Virginia dirt, the box came out of the ground looking like it had been plucked from the ocean. A tiny silver brick, now encrusted with a green patina and rough as sandpaper. Buried beneath it was a human skeleton. The remains would later be identified as those of Captain Gabriel Archer, one of the most prominent leaders at Jamestown, the first permanent English colony in America. But it was the box, which appeared to be an ancient Catholic reliquary, that had archaeologists bewildered and astonished.
“One of the major surprises was the discovery of this mysterious small silver box,” said James Horn, the president of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation. “I have to say, we’re still trying to figure this out. You have the very strange situation of a Catholic reliquary being found with the leader of the first Protestant church in the country.”
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
The new version of Apple’s signature media software is a mess. What are people with large MP3 libraries to do?
When the developer Erik Kemp designed the first metadata system for MP3s in 1996, he provided only three options for attaching text to the music. Every audio file could be labeled with only an artist, song name, and album title.
Kemp’s system has since been augmented and improved upon, but never replaced. Which makes sense: Like the web itself, his schema was shipped, good enough,and an improvement on the vacuum which preceded it. Those three big tags, as they’re called, work well with pop and rock written between 1960 and 1995. This didn’t prevent rampant mislabeling in the early days of the web, though, as anyone who remembers Napster can tell you. His system stumbles even more, though, when it needs to capture hip hop’s tradition of guest MCs or jazz’s vibrant culture of studio musicianship.
More on the F-16 and Cessna crash, and whether the collision of a military and a civilian aircraft was also a collision of cultures
Early this month an Air Force F-16, under the command of an experienced Air Force pilot, rammed into a small-civilian Cessna 150 propeller plane, not far from Charleston, South Carolina. The Air Force pilot ejected to safety; both people aboard the Cessna were killed.
The next three paragraphs are background for the pointed and interesting reader-messages I am about to quote. If you’re already up to speed with previous installments (one, two, three), you can skip ahead to the messages. They highlight an aspect of the modern military-civilian divide I had not considered before this episode.
In an original item on the crash, I noted some of the perils civilians could face when flying near designated military areas—even though this crash happened in ordinary uncontrolled airspace. That is, it occurred when neither plane was within a Military Operations Area (MOA), where civilian pilots are warned about risks from high-speed military aircraft, nor inside the controlled “Class C” airspace that surrounds Charleston’s airport. (Medium-sized commercial airports like Charleston’s typically are ringed by Class C airspace, so the controllers can sequence in the airline, cargo, civilian, military, and other traffic headed toward their runways. The very busiest airports, like LAX or JFK, are surrounded by larger zones of Class B airspace for their more complex traffic-control jobs. In case you’re wondering, Class A airspace is the realm above 18,000 feet where most jet travel occurs.)
U.S. officials are turning to Russia for help with Iran and Syria, even as the Ukrainian conflict persists.
If you believe all the talk out there lately, Vladimir Putin is not only duplicitous and hypocritical—the Russian president’s also been pretty damn busy recently. Busy cutting secret deals with the same Europeans and Americans he has been vilifying for years. And if you believe the rumors, the Europeans and Americans have also been busy selling out Ukraine to the Russians.
Not that any of this would be unusual or particularly surprising. Cynicism, duplicity, and hypocrisy are often the reserve currencies of politics, where interests tend to trump values.
There have long been suspicions that the United States and Europe might give Ukraine up in exchange for Russia’s support in securing a deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program. Additionally, Washington has been seeking Moscow’s backing in securing a managed, orderly, and negotiated exit for Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, which would go a long way toward ending the conflict in that country.
The agreement doesn’t guarantee that Tehran will never produce nuclear weapons—because no agreement could do so.
A week ago I volunteered my way into an Atlantic debate on the merits of the Iran nuclear agreement. The long version of the post is here; the summary is that the administration has both specific facts and longer-term historic patterns on its side in recommending the deal.
On the factual front, I argued that opponents had not then (and have not now) met President Obama’s challenge to propose a better real-world alternative to the negotiated terms. Better means one that would make it less attractive for Iran to pursue a bomb, over a longer period of time. Real world means not the standard “Obama should have been tougher” carping but a specific demand that the other countries on “our” side, notably including Russia and China, would have joined in insisting on, and that the Iranians would have accepted.
Has the Obama administration’s pursuit of new beginnings blinded it to enduring enmities?
“The president said many times he’s willing to step out of the rut of history.” In this way Ben Rhodes of the White House, who over the years has broken new ground in the grandiosity of presidential apologetics, described the courage of Barack Obama in concluding the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with the Islamic Republic of Iran, otherwise known as the Iran deal. Once again Rhodes has, perhaps inadvertently, exposed the president’s premises more clearly than the president likes to do. The rut of history: It is a phrase worth pondering. It expresses a deep scorn for the past, a zeal for newness and rupture, an arrogance about old struggles and old accomplishments, a hastiness with inherited precedents and circumstances, a superstition about the magical powers of the present. It expresses also a generational view of history, which, like the view of history in terms of decades and centuries, is one of the shallowest views of all.
Even with the overwhelming recent New York cover story, the women pay a price for speaking out.
Who still defends Bill Cosby? After newly unsealed depositions revealed that the comedian admitted to acquiring sedatives to give to women he wanted to have sex with, his longstanding backer Whoopi Goldberg recanted her support for the man accused of dozens of rapes over the years. The singer Jill Scott, too, said she was wrong when she suspected a media conspiracy against him. And if Cosby’s former costars, including Phylicia Rashad, still believe him to be the target of an illegitimate smear campaign, they haven’t spoken up to say so in a while. Cosby’s lawyer is currently making the rounds in the media to say his deposition has been misconstrued—but that argument, even if believed, doesn’t refute the idea that he used drugs to take advantage of women.