Ask The Experts
YOUTH SPORTS AND THE LAW: Using facemasks on batting helmets
Q: I’m in my first year as a recreation director and we’ve got a baseball program with about 200 kids in the 8- to 12-year-old range. The program I’ve taken over hasn’t used facemasks on batting helmets in the past, but I feel this is an important piece of safety equipment that should be in place to protect the kids while batting. The parents are pretty split on the idea: Some are all for the extra protection while some are definitely more “old school” and oppose them since they haven’t been a big part of the game in the past.
I want to protect the kids and, of course, protect our program from lawsuits if a child does get hit in the face by a pitch. What’s my best move here to keep the kids as safe as possible and keep our program out of court: Mandate the facemasks and deal with irate parents; or simply recommend players use facemasks and let the parents decide for themselves what they think is best for their child?
A: Use the faceguards. Put them on every helmet, and make sure every helmet fits the players and is well-maintained. Explain to every parent and player in writing via group email why facemasks are a good idea. Be specific. You can highlight the following advantages of facemasks:
Concussions – If a 9-year-old sustains a facial or head injury, such as a concussion, from an errant pitch or foul ball, he or she may sustain a significant injury and never want to stand in the batter’s box again. That is the opposite of what Little League is all about. Also, concussions and their severe consequences are an avoidable risk. It’s a matter of common sense. Youth leagues should do everything they can to avoid a concussion to a child, because the short-term and long-term ramifications are extremely serious. A concussion can keep a child out of school and normal social contact for months, possibly longer. The effects can change school performance, possibly indefinitely, and cause significant depression.
Facial injury – Similar problems, including concussion, disfigurement and depression can arise from a facial injury. Why not avoid it? Although there is currently no requirement that Little Leaguers wear faceguards, an article published in the journal “Clinics in Sports Medicine” associates faceguards with a reduced risk of face and ocular injuries in baseball and states the following:
In baseball, some have proposed that faceguards may reduce the risk of concussion, although this has not yet been studied. In youth baseball, facemasks have been shown to reduce the incidence of oculofacial injury in a non-randomized prospective cohort study. Overall, faceguards are also associated with a reduced risk of facial injury.
Ear protection – The other benefit of a helmet with a faceguard is that it has protective coverings for the ears on both sides. That’s not true for helmets without faceguards. As a result, the faceguard helmet provides protection for both sides of the face, the cheek bones and the ears and can be used by both left-handed and right-handed batters. Major League players who can bat from both sides of the plate often use these kinds of helmets. They also provide added protection for base runners who may be hit by a line drive or by a throw during a steal, an attempted steal, or a run-down.
Let’s not forget, there are concussion laws in every state. The coach and program director should be familiar with the state’s law in which the youth league operates. Information for youth sports coaches is also available on the Center for Disease Control website.
Why risk facial and head injury, particularly in leagues where children ages 8 to 12 are often wild on the pitching mound? The balls fly around the plate and batter’s box and off of helmets, arms, legs and hands. Why take a risk of someone getting hit in the face or side of the head? That is the message I would convey to parents and players. You should try to have all coaches on board with this approach in advance. If all the coaches are in agreement, the so-called irate parent should not be an issue.
If parents protest, do your best to persuade them otherwise. If you face a protesting parent who brings the player’s helmet (without a facemask) to practices and games, ask them to use the equipment you provide. If they refuse, politely tell them via email (copied to all the coaches) that they and their child are using unauthorized safety equipment at their own risk, and then let it go. It’s not worth the fight. You’ve documented properly your requirements and the fact that the protesting parent has disregarded them and is assuming the risk for his or her own child. That’s the best you can do.
David Langfitt is a partner in the Locks Law Firm in Philadelphia, Pa., where he specializes in complex commercial, mass tort and fiduciary litigation. He has also litigated multiple patent and copyright infringement claims in federal district and appellate courts. He can be reached at (215) 893-3423 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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