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Helmets Aren't Always Enough To Keep Players Safe

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Helmets Aren't Always Enough To Keep Players Safe

Helmets Aren't Always Enough To Keep Players Safe

Helmets Aren't Always Enough To Keep Players Safe

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/367262110/367362418" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Pakistani cricket fans light candles to pay tribute to Australian cricketer Phillip Hughes in Karachi, Pakistan, on Thursday. Hughes, 25, died in a Sydney hospital Thursday, two days after being struck on the neck by a cricket ball. Shakil Adil/AP hide caption

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Shakil Adil/AP

Pakistani cricket fans light candles to pay tribute to Australian cricketer Phillip Hughes in Karachi, Pakistan, on Thursday. Hughes, 25, died in a Sydney hospital Thursday, two days after being struck on the neck by a cricket ball.

Shakil Adil/AP

Australian cricket player Phillip Hughes died this week in Sydney after he was struck on the back of the neck by a bounced pitch that's an ordinary and routine part of cricket.

Mr. Hughes was 25, an accomplished and admired player. There's been an outpouring of grief in Australia and around the world over his death. Cricket fans from India and Pakistan to New Zealand have observed a minute of silence before a match, and worn black armbands. Cricket fans have put out cricket bats in tribute. Rory McIlroy, the great Irish golfer, played with a black ribbon in his cap.

Few Americans follow cricket. The game often has a faintly dainty image here, with players in white sweaters who stop for tea over a six-hour match. But the cricket ball is hard. Bowlers, as they're called, can pitch a ball at over 90 miles an hour, which can, after hitting the wicket, bounce towards a batsman's head or body. Hit it, or get out of the way.

Phillip Hughes wore a helmet. It's required of professional cricket players and children alike in many situations these days. But the ball bounced into the back of his neck, which is not covered by the helmet, and apparently set off bleeding that flooded his brain.

Cricketer Phillip Hughes celebrates a score in 2011. Hughes was wearing a helmet this week when a ball struck him on the neck and killed him. Eranga Jayawardena/AP hide caption

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Eranga Jayawardena/AP

Cricketer Phillip Hughes celebrates a score in 2011. Hughes was wearing a helmet this week when a ball struck him on the neck and killed him.

Eranga Jayawardena/AP

The injury that felled Phillip Hughes might seem freakish, but cricket fans know that there's been a string of injuries in the sport in recent months, when fast balls have struck players, even on their helmets. Darryn Randall, a South African player, was struck on the head and died in October of 2013. Mr. Hughes is the second cricketer in two years to die because of an injury suffered in a game.

By contrast, a major league U.S. baseball player has not died of an injury on the field since Ray Chapman was hit in the head by a pitch in 1920.

But The Economist, the British weekly, raised a question this week that not only applies to cricket, but to U.S. sports, and some aspects of life, too. It's what economists call "the moral hazard" question: Do people take more risks when they think they are protected from the consequences of something that might go wrong?

Do cricket players try to hit a ball that should make them duck because they expect a helmet to protect their heads? Do the sturdier helmets that have been developed just encourage U.S. football players to absorb more hits and crashes, and thereby shake up their brains and spines? Does new headgear encourage hockey players to skate faster and hit the boards more recklessly?

Do the technological advances we tell ourselves will protect us risk just winding up as new examples of good intentions that go wrong?