Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Baseball Helmets, Binary Choices, and a Nobel Prize Winner

Watching Baseball Tonight last night, I caught a glimpse of John Kruk and others discussing the new helmet that David Wright is wearing. The helmet is a little bit bigger and heavier, and the consensus (of the former players) seemed to be that they would definitely wear it when they played. Kruky says that now, but I suspect back in the early 90's he wouldn't have been as willing to do so. Why? Well, because they had safer helmets than they were wearing then, and as far as I know, he didn't wear them.

Anyway, I think the players should be required to wear the safer helmets (I believe they already will be in the Minor Leagues next season). There's not too much of a disadvantage to doing so, as it seems like you would be more comfortable at the plate wearing a safe helmet than one that is not so safe (Kruk mentioned comfort is a lot about safety up at the plate). So why haven't players decided to use these before? Does it really take a hit in the head to only a superstar to influence this type of change (and/or the change made that base coaches must wear helmets now). And why were base coaches so against wearing a helmet at their on-field stations even after such a tragedy? Well...it turns out this isn't such a new problem. Back in the 1969 we saw a similar situation to the Wright or Coolbaugh one in baseball today: Boston Bruins player Teddy Green took a hockey stick in his brain. Green stated vehemently that he would wear a helmet upon his return. He didn't. Was he insane?

I'm not going to go any farther with this. But the current situation is similar to the problem Hockey had for a while, and why even in the 1990's players were allowed to play without a helmet. The reason I mention the Teddy Green incident is this can be modeled as an economic problem. Nobel Prize Winner, Thomas Schelling, a Harvard Economics Professor at the time, wrote an in-depth paper that began with the Teddy Green incident called "Hockey Helmets, Concealed Weapons, and Daylight Saving: A Study of Binary Choices With Externalities" (Journal of Conflict Resolution, 1973). The paper was recommended to me by one of my labor economics professors when I asked about steroid use in his class. I'll recommend the same, but I can't say I would know about this without the help of that professor (who is probably one of the smartest people I've ever met...he's a Harvard PhD...and a hell of a pitcher on our softball team). The guy is a human library. I'll warn that the Schelling paper can get pretty dense, but the sports anecdote makes it catch your attention right away.

Anyway, just thought it was interesting given last night's BB Tonight and my recent discussion of externalities that come up in fantasy keeper leagues. This paper is another fun application, and even gets into ostracism by other players for wearing helmets, disadvantages with peripheral vision, and so on. Good stuff.

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