Friday, March 20, 2009

Umpire Concussions (Mama Said Knock You Out)

Ever notice how anal we are as umpires about checking for the NOCSAE stamp on youth equipment? Ever notice that our own gear doesn’t have that stamp?
Go check, I’ll wait.

Scary, huh?

What does a NOCSAE stamp exactly mean? Well, it turns out not much when applied to umpires as there are no test standards for umpire masks. To test a youth catcher’s helmet the tester mounts the helmet on an instrumented head model which is free to move, and an air cannon is used to shoot a baseball from close range into the helmeted head model at 60 mph. Impact accelerations are measured and a Severity Index is calculated and compared with the NOCSAE standard to determine if the helmet meets the requirement. NOCSAE guidelines permit a catcher’s helmet to pass if the peak severity index of any impact does not exceed 1200 SI (severity index explained here).

Unfortunately, there is strong evidence that a concussion becomes likely at a severity index of 300. Now I'm no physicist, but 300 happens long before 1200, right? And the safety test is rated at sixty miles per hour? Are you kidding me? When was the last time you were on the plate with a kid throwing 60?

Last year in the wake of the Kerwin Danley injury USA Today did two stories about MLB umpire injuries: here and here

USA Today states that through June 11, 2008, umpires had reported 36 blows to the head through a program set up by athletic trainer Mark Letendre, who works with the umps for Major League Baseball. In 2007, 38 were reported. Every year in the major leagues there are reports of umpires being concussed and leaving games. And we all know what tough sons-of-guns those MLB umpires are.

The threat of concussion is a real concern, even at lower levels of ball. Not only can a foul ball strike you in the mask, but a backswing can knock you out also. That happened to Jerry Crawford last season.

So who is protecting us? No one it seems. I have searched the internet for information regarding testing of umpire masks. I even emailed Wilson, the leading provider of umpire masks. After three days Wilson has not replied. All I could find was a commendable effort, but flawed test of a youth hockey style mask and youth traditional mask by undergraduate students at Kettering University. The manufacturer of the masks (All Star, apparently upset that they were singled out) responded to the report at the end of the article. Also Jim Kirk, owner of Ump-Attire and friend to the umpire, questioned the methodology and conclusions on his blog:
C- Grade to Safety Study on Traditional vs. Hockey Style Mask

What can we do? First, umpire masks and helmets need to be evaluated and tested. As consumers we are entitled to know the level of protection a mask provides. There may be some legal liability to the manufacturer as well. Personally I think it is reasonable for Joe Umpire that buys an MLB mask to believe that it will protect him from concussions in his H.S. JV games. The lesson of former MLB catcher Mike Matheny teaches us otherwise.

Some umpires are using the hockey style masks that offer some protection against back swings and perhaps more protection frontally as the design is more angular allowing for more glancing blows. An article in Men’s Health Magazine reports that the Wilson Shock FX hockey style mask with little “shock absorbers” built into the cage reduces impact force by up to 50 percent. However, I cannot find information or claims from Wilson that substantiate this and they did not respond to my email. If true, the Wilson Shock FX may be the most important piece of safety gear available to umpires. I can say that I have noticed more MLB umpires (and other umpires in the WBC) wearing the Wilson Shock FX including Kerwin Danley when he returned to duty after his injury.

It is simply speculation, but the lower profile masks offered by Wilson may be a contributor to umpire concussions. The lower profile mask sits closer to the face and is flatter with less angles. Jim Kirk asks the question best:

"Physics dictates a flatter low profile umpire mask will divert less force than a more curved standard one, but how much less and is this a significant difference?"

Jim asks a second very important question:

"More padding between the ball and you as in Wilson's wrap around padding is more protective than one with less padding but how much more protective and how significant is this difference to umpires at various levels?"

Hopefully we will have these questions and more attention focused on this matter in the future. In the meantime it looks like we're on our own.


UK Eddie said...

A very thought privoking blog. In this time of over litigation we should expect some form of safty mark or standard from manufacturers. Untill then we umpires will have to swap war stories and learn from others pain, Oh well

Jim Kirk said...

Enjoyed reading your article.

Regarding the manufacturers of umpire masks, the type of testing they do is more for durability; tests such as anvil testing and ball impact testing. The manufacturers are going to want to know make sure their mask frame is not going to bend, break or crack with stress.

Regarding NOCSAE certification, there is no NOCSAE reviews for any helmet without an earflap. So the only thing you're going to see a NOCSAE stamp on for umpires are hockey style helmets.

Optimal would be to design a rating for each mask in terms of impact reduction. Weight and height are easy, but wouldn't it be nice to know let's say that one mask had a certain impact reduction rating and another was higher.

There are 2 problems with that. One is that there is no standard testing from which manufacturers can work. The other is that there are areas of the mask that are going to take more force where hit than others. It is this main reason why the Kettering study you mentioned was flawed (they compared a flatter area one one vs a more rounded on another).

What we do know about umpire masks and their safety is relative. We know that a mask with more padding is going to be more protective than one that has less. We know a mask frame that is more curved is going to deflect more force than one that is lower or flatter. We know a hockey style helmet protects more of the head than a traditional style mask.

And we also know that there are risks inherent in umpiring just as there are in other sports (e.g. football, racing) and professions (e.g. firefighters, construction workers) that can't be prevented, but can only be minimized.

And to minimize the risk, you currently have only the relative information and anecdotal evidence from other umpires but no precise, objective analysis.

Jim Kirk

Anonymous said...

I already had a titanium, and I went for a standard cage for the stated reasons.

And I bought it from Jim Kirk, because he's the most involved and informative guy in the business. I'll still use the low-profile for lower level games, but when the pitchers bringing it, I'm switching to the standard.

Jim Kirk said...

I've been starting the conversation on the possible wearing of mouthguards while umpiring. It's exploratory at this point, but I've had some good comments thus far from umpires on a blog post on the subject that is relevant to your post here.

Be curious to hear your initial thoughts or perhaps this is something you might find worthy of blogging about once we pull together more research.

Thanks anonymous for your comment (and purchase). I don't know if I'm there yet, but I'm trying.

Jim Kirk

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