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May 28, 2010

Watch Your Head!

New Technology Can Prevent Concussions

by Mark Smith

With a crack and a thud, David Wright slammed into the Citi Field turf. He had just been struck in the head by a mid-90s Matt Cain fastball, and after a few frightening moments and an unsteady walk back to the dugout, the Mets' third baseman was taken to the hospital for treatment of a concussion. Three days earlier, on August 12, 2009, David Waldstein of the New York Times asked Wright about Rawlings’ new batting helmet, one that could protect a player’s head from a 100 mph fastball. Despite other players’ negative reactions that noted an increase in discomfort and a decrease in style, Wright responded, “If it provides more protection, then I’m all for it. I’m not worried about style or looking good out there. I’m worried about keeping my melon protected.” It was a somewhat surprising response given the other players’ reactions, but it is one that seemed sound and levelheaded. Wright, however, was not wearing that helmet when the fastball crashed into his skull.

Wright’s injury could have been prevented. The risks and dangers of being hit in the head by a pitch are well-known. The solution was well-publicized. Yet Major League Baseball—its players, coaches, teams, and commissioner—continually lag behind when it comes to safety concerns. Why is this? What causes baseball to ignore the safety of its players, especially when teams invest so heavily in them, when the risks and solutions are so readily apparent? To answer these questions, it is necessary to delve deeper into an understanding of ourselves, professional sports, and societal pressures.

Experience and Aptitude

Let’s start with a basic scenario. When teaching a kid how to ride a bike, do you tell him/her to wear a helmet? Of course. Kids are generally bad with balance, and considering that balance is essential to riding a two-wheeler, it might be a good idea to dress them up in catcher’s equipment and a couple of those shields that Barry Bonds used to wear on his arm, too. Kids are beginners, and everyone takes all the safety precautions necessary because crashes are par for the course. But after a period of time, do you continue to monitor their helmet-wearing habits so closely? After they’ve proven their ability to ride a bike, do you even care so much that they wear a helmet? Probably not.

It’s a similar situation in baseball. Little Leaguers get to wear the enormous and bulky-looking helmets with the cage on the front. There are obvious reasons for this. Very young pitchers have very little command of their pitches and very young batters' reaction times aren’t exactly Martin Brodeur-esque. As players move on to high school, college, and professional baseball, those concerns dwindle as pitchers get better and have better control. The cages and extra padding disappear. Concerns over the hitter’s safety become less worrisome as pitchers refine their mechanics and control. If everyone does their job, no one should get hurt. Trepidation over safety for children is replaced with anxiety over production for those fighting for spots in major college programs or professional baseball.

“It Won’t Happen to Me”

Fortunately, most players don’t incur major injuries in their young careers, and if they have played professional baseball, there is also probably a pretty good chance they did not have a serious head injury. After a while, all those at-bats without suffering head injuries create false positives. If they have not suffered an injury yet, then they see it as less likely that they will suffer one now or in the future, and the reasoning from the previous section works to confirm this belief (because, really, how many times are guys hit in the head with fastballs?). People have to be convinced that they can be injured, maimed, or killed by something before they will guard against it. After 20 years of playing baseball and never suffering a concussion from a beaning, why would you think it would happen to you?

Wright learned the truth the hard way when Matt Cain hit him with that fastball. When he came back to the lineup after a stint on the DL, he made headlines for being the only major-league player to wear the new Rawlings’ helmet. He had learned that it could, indeed, happen to him, but the story doesn’t end there. Two days into the experiment, Wright tossed the new helmet in favor of the old one that had failed at preventing his concussion. His reasoning was comfort, but isn’t a little discomfort worth safety? Just two weeks after the incident, why would Wright disregard his safety once it had been proven that he could be hurt?

Being a “Real Man”

*Note: I can’t speak directly to Wright’s actual state of mind or reasons for no longer using the Rawlings helmet. I’m not qualified, and that would be completely irresponsible to say this or that caused him to switch back. Instead, what follows is a continued examination of the pressures and obstacles players and baseball face in confronting safety issues.

Playing in a highly-competitive, all-male world has its drawbacks. Appearances are everything, and that helmet is rife with appearances you don’t want to be associated with if you’re trying to appear masculine. Our social construction of the male gender states that men should be tough and deal with pain regardless of the risks. Those helmets scream the opposite. It states that the player is worried about his safety, and he is willing to wear more padding to protect himself. It also doesn’t help that the helmets are enormous and make the player look like recurring "Flintstones" character Gazoo. Wright, in fact, received some heckling from teammates for how ridiculous he looked while wearing the oversized helmet. If this scenario seems a bit absurd, it should, but we all fall prey to it. Social policing, ensuring that the people around you follow social norms, is a powerful force. Even if it is just “for fun,” it has real psychological impacts. Wright may not have ditched the helmet for this reason, but many other players have and will. To be a “real man” (or so the theory goes), the man cannot have his toughness questioned.

Language

Rhetoric is another important aspect of this situation. What words do you hear in reference to these helmets, and what do those words imply? Let’s start with one I have used already. “Ridiculous” implies something that is nonsensical, and if it doesn’t make sense, then why wear it? “Overstuffed” and “extra padding” indicate that the padding is more than is necessary, and if it is more than necessary, then it isn’t necessary, is it? Wording like this, of course, doesn’t actually reflect what someone means (overstuffed usually just means more padding in colloquial usage—not stuffed past what is necessary), but the impact of those words is still very real. It colors our preconceptions and attitudes toward a certain subject, and when the words most associated with the helmet are “ridiculous” and “Gazoo”, it’s not bound to work out well.

And what about the word “accident”? It’s a word we throw around a lot, but what does it really imply? Merriam-Webster defines it as “an unforeseen and unplanned event or circumstance.” Sounds harmless enough. The word “accident,” however, has a number of unintentional (or intentional, depending on your perspective and motives) insinuations. Accidents are, for example, seen as “acts of God,” and if it is the “act” of “God,” then we don’t have control over it, do we? Nothing could have stopped it from happening, right? No one is really to blame, no? Wrong. Accidents are really incidents, and as unintended as they are, there is usually someone to blame and some way to have prevented it. Wright could have worn the helmet and followed his own advice. Teams could mandate that players wear the helmet. MLB could have mandated it (though there are Collective Bargaining Agreement problems, focusing on the problem earlier could have had a similar helmet included in the last CBA. Are you going to tell me Rawlings couldn’t have designed this helmet 15 years ago if MLB was really concerned and demanded a similar helmet back then?). Loved ones could have swayed the players to use it for their sake. No one meant for it to happen, but it could have been prevented.

Other Safety Concerns

Helmets aren’t the only safety issues being overlooked in baseball today. How many times does David Price (or anyone else) need to be impaled to ban maple bats? With a BatGlove that adheres to MLB rules, players could still use maple bats while preventing the barrel from flying toward other players, coaches, or fans. Head-first slides are another safety issue. It’s probably one of the worst strategies to employ on a baseball field. Done to presumably decrease the time it takes to get to a base, studies have shown that it slows the runner down as he goes out of stride, lowers his body, and prepares to slide. It is also highly dangerous, as delicate body parts such as wrists and fingers head toward hard, immovable objects called bases and sharp implements called cleats. Part of the problem is social—protecting the appearance of manhood, appearing to give maximum effort (head-first slides), etc. Part of the problem is political—the CBA would have to be changed to mandate the use of a specific helmet. And another part is perceived economics—is it really worth spending money on [insert safety precaution]? These are real obstacles, but the solutions are just as real.

The baseball field is riddled with dangers. If your immediate reaction to all of this is “Risk and danger are a part of sports. Too many concerns about safety will take away from the game,” then stop and ask yourself why you’re saying that and if any of the above applies. Then ask yourself, “If [insert name of early 1900s ballplayer] were here, what would he think of helmets?” They might think we are being “wusses,” but yet we accept helmets as part of the game today. What seems normal is a social construct. It’s not a matter of fact. If the Rawlings helmets were implemented now, they and the players’ appearance with them would be “normal” in a few years, and there would be many fewer concussions, if any, stemming from beanings. These safety precautions take nothing away from the game. Helmets do not mess with a player's swing, and the players will adjust to the “discomfort.” Players can still use maple bats due to the BatGlove. And feet-first slides are just as useful as head-first slides. Don’t let it take another Ray Chapman or a kid being sliced by a bat shard to make changes. It is time to be proactive. It is that necessary.

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