On Sept. 20, 2017, during a baseball game between the New York Yankees and the Minnesota Twins, then Yankees third baseman Todd Frazier hit a line drive foul down the third base line and into the stands.
The ball, estimated at speeds greater than 100 MPH, struck a 2-year-old girl in the face, resulting in skull fractures, vision problems and a brain bleed; it took over a year for her to fully recover.
That incident is particularly tough, to read about or to watch. While the camera crews covering the game were insightful enough to maintain wide shots of the stadium rather than zooming in on the bleeding toddler, the pained looks and teary eyes of many players provided viewers with all the understanding necessary.
It was a serious, life-threatening injury that befell a young girl brought to the ball park by her father. An accident, but one frankly that is not uncommon and all too predictable. Each year, fans across baseball stadiums are struck by foul balls — the danger comes with the unique feature baseball offers of fans being able to catch their own souvenirs. However, bringing a glove to a game should be about having fun, not being cautious.
In response to the aforementioned incidents and others, the MLB made an official recommendation to professional baseball stadiums to widen the protective netting in their facilities; this was not a new league rule, however, as the commissioner did not believe a one-size-fits-all rule could apply to so many diverse stadium designs.
The majority of stadiums took up the recommendation, extending their netting the full length of either team’s dugouts. Whether the measures will reduce foul ball incidences remains to be seen. The entire situation brings up and interesting point : Where is the line between assumed and unnecessary risk in sports? As I stated above, there is a subtle element of danger when going to a ball park.
Foul balls are an exciting aspect of baseball, for children and adults alike, and provide an indirect interaction between players and fans. There’s even a monetary value attached to some foul balls, such as Barry Bonds’ 756th homerun ball that eventually sold for more than $700,000 (the fight for that ball on camera was intense).
I believe baseball fans understand the danger, but dismiss it with the sheer odds of the incident happening to them; the likelihood of a foul ball coming to their seat, the likelihood that foul ball is hit hard enough and the likelihood they aren’t able to react quickly enough combine for a near-zero percentage. While the incidences in baseball can be gruesome, they are rather rare.
The question of necessary risk in sports extends to athletes as well. With more dangerous sports, that is where the premise can reasonably be considered more extreme, the assumed risk rises; wingsuit flying is more dangerous than basketball, for example.
In football, however, the level of risk can be difficult to ascertain. In the past, partially due to the efforts of the National Football League, there was little public awareness of the neurological damage sustained by football players over the years. Dr. Bennet Omalu, a physician, forensic pathologist and neuropathologist, in his 2005 research paper presented findings on a neurodegenerative disease called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, which began a conversation amongst players, fans and league officials at all levels of play as to the safety of the game.
Extensive research began on the brains of deceased football players and evidence began to mount that repeated hits to the head, which any football player can reasonably be expected to endure, resulted in increased risks of CTE.
On July 27, 2017, the Journal of the American Medical Association released the results of a study regarding the prevalence of CTE. In the 202 deceased football players whose brains they examined, CTE was diagnosed in 177 players, with the following player percentages: Three-of-14 high school (21 percent), 48-of-53 college (91 percent), nine-of-14 semiprofessional (64 percent), seven-ofeight Canadian Football League (88 percent) and 110-of-111 National Football League (99 percent).
The vast majority of participants had behavioral or mood symptoms, cognitive symptoms and signs of dementia. The researchers said the results suggest “CTE may be related to prior participation in football.”
Don’t hesitate because of the wording — the report clearly illustrates that the longer one plays football, the greater their risk of CTE is. What should we make of this though? Of course football is dangerous, every play involves tackling and hitting as hard as you can. You can’t play the game without that element, and the solution to CTE won’t come from better equipment; you can have the hardest helmet, you’re still subjected to repeated hitting.
There’s a reasonable assumption of risk in football, but the distinction between people knowing they may get laid out and knowing they may slowly wither their brain is key.
When a sport as dangerous as football is proven to be is accessible to children, it becomes imperative that society take a step back and determine whether such risk is necessary. It would seem that process is taking place, as high school participation in football has fallen nearly seven percent in the last decade, according to survey reports from the National Federation of High School Associations.
Former President Barack Obama said in 2014 that “I would not let my son play pro football,” a statement made when asked about the link between football, concussions and CTE. The president compared those who continue to play to people who smoke cigarettes; the assumed risk of the activity is understood and accepted.
Sure, such can be said about professional, even college football players, but what about children? Is it right to let kids play football when the science is clear that repeated hits to the head increases the risk of brain damage?
With some sports or activities, the incidences can be chalked up to bad luck — like a stray puck flying out the rink during a hockey game and striking a fan. They can be ignored due to their low possibility or responded to with increased safety measures, such as with foul balls in baseball.
In the more extreme examples the sport by nature can excuse the risk that comes with it, as is seen with wingsuit flying.
When the risk of a sport is as damaging as CTE is, and the cause of said risk is unsolvable without dismantling a basis of the game, perhaps the solution is simply not to play.