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The Economics of the Haynesworth Decision:Do People Respond to Incentives?

From NFL.com:

...6-foot-6, 320-pound Haynesworth stomped on Dallas Cowboys center Andre Gurode's head Oct. 1, knocking off his helmet, then kicked and stomped his face. Gurode needed 30 stitches to repair the cuts left by the tackle's cleats...

For this he was suspended for five games??? FIVE GAMES??

* He stomped on Gurode's head, knocking off Gurode's helmet.
* He kicked and stomped Gurode's face.
* Gurode needed 30 stitches.

The importance of a suspension for this behaviour is not just retributive justice (which I think is an important component of justice), it is also deterrence. And five games plus loss of $500K in foregone salary during the suspension might not be much of a deterrence (well, of course it would be for me, but for someone earning $100K per game, I wonder if it is enough); and I note that some sources put the dollar amount of his salary (and hence de facto fine) at a much lower amount.

But there is also a third reason for punishment: in criminal law, people are incarcerated because we don't want them on the streets where they can commit more crimes. And Haynesworth's behaviour is analogous: it simply should not be tolerated at all, so he should not be allowed to play the game any more. Furthermore, suspending him for life would send a signal that this kind of behaviour will not be tolerated by the league.

At the same time, local authorities should arrest Haynesworth for assault and throw him jail. Todd Bertuzzi faced criminal charges in Canada; Ken Schram agrees, wondering why Haynesworth wasn't arrested on the spot; and Stephen Pollard has argued that Ben Thatcher should have been charged for his violent outburst during a football match in England in August.

I keep telling my students that economics can be summarized with the phrase, "People respond to incentives." If the NFL really wants to deter behaviour like that of Haynesworth, they must be willing to create serious disincentives for it. But maybe they don't want to deter it; maybe, in their cold-hearted analysis, the NFL sees violent outbursts (and the attendant hoopla) as good for the profits of the teams. If that is the case, and if others in society disapprove, then it will fall to civil authorities to create additional disincentives.

As I wrote on my own blog, however, there might be one reason for suspending Haynesworth only 5 games:

One reason to let him play again after five games is that his next best income-earning opportunity might be to earn maybe $50K per year. Given that Gurode has been disfigured, he surely has a case against Haynesworth for an intentional tort and should sue the guy. But how can Haynesworth pay any damages if he doesn't play football? So maybe letting him play is one way of (potentially) providing compensation for Gurode.

One of the commenters there wondered whether I thought Haynesworth didn't have more than enough salted away to cover whatever damages he might be liable for. In short, no. I can readily imagine that he has (and will have) very little in the way of attachable assets by the time this case works its way through the courts, especially if the lower estimates of his salary prove to be correct.