Safety of sportspersons becomes serious business

By: |
New Delhi | September 20, 2015 12:18 AM

From special helmets to masks, host of new equipment out in the field

During the fifth ODI between England and Australia at Old Trafford, Manchester, this past week, England captain Eoin Morgan was hit on the helmet by a Mitchell Starc bouncer, clocked at 90 mph. Morgan retired hurt with a concussion. Starc was the only player on the pitch at Old Trafford who was part of the November 2014 Sheffield Shield match, where south Australia batsman Phillip Hughes was fatally hit on the neck by a short ball.

Hughes’ demise had sent shockwaves among the sporting fraternity, but the Morgan episode is a stark reminder of the underlying risks involved in every sport, not just cricket. Not surprisingly, ever since the November 2014 incident, sports gear manufacturers and independent researchers are focusing on equipment that can offer players more protection from potential fatal injuries.

One such product is a cricket helmet with an additional ‘stem guard’. A clip-on attachment made by British manufacturer Masuri, the StemGuard offers further protection to the back of the head and neck. It is composed of high-strength plastic and military grade crush foam, and can be clipped on to the grill at the back of the helmet, providing cover to the lower skull region. It went through a trial in March this year and has been used by many batsmen. Unlike earlier models, the latest helmets focus more on covering the vulnerable areas of the head.

“Most gear manufacturers work on a trial and error basis. You’ve got the temple covered in the new helmets. But only time will tell how effective they are,” says cricket expert and columnist Ayaz Memon. “By and large, the most vulnerable parts are the chest and head. That’s why you see more and more players wearing chest guards. Gear manufacturers try and make products that protect the vulnerable parts,” he adds. Memon believes fatal accidents in cricket are rare, but that doesn’t mean one should leave anything to chance. “With more ODIs and 20-20 matches, batsmen are getting adventurous. They think that with all the protective gear on, they can experiment with technique. But recent events show that is clearly misleading,” Memon adds, underlining the fact that protective gear at times can be just a false sense of security.

Former Indian wicket-keeper Nayan Mongia says there is no doubt helmet manufacturers have been working to make them safer, but the safety part can only be brought to fruition if everyone wears them. “A lot of research and development has been on, the helmets have become lighter, comfortable for players, but I don’t see everybody wearing them,” says Mongia.

Another area that has seen injuries and brain-related trauma over the years is contact sports. Tackles are an essential part of contact sports like American football, and players often collide with each other at dangerous speeds. Although, they have the relevant protective gear — shoulder pads, helmets, thigh pads and mouthguards — head injuries are still occurring. But now, helmet sensors and other devices could measure or prevent such injuries in sports. A recent Bloomberg report talked about a material developed at the University of Pennsylvania (that) might help detect when a hit is hard enough to damage the brain. The report explains how researchers have created a chemical strip, something close to a litmus paper, which changes colour on impact to measure the force of a collision. The material could be integrated into helmets for athletes or even soldiers. There are other sports where not all of them have the option of wearing helmets. In field hockey, for instance, the goalkeeper wears a helmet, leg guards, kickers, groin protectors and other heavily padded equipment. But the field players have no such provisions. But in the aftermath of the Hughes incident, the International Hockey Federation notified new rules, effective January 2015, which allowed defenders to wear protective metal grill masks while defending penalty corners. “I used to be a defender at short corners and having the right protection is very important,” says former captain of the Indian hockey team, Viren Rasquinha. The grill masks come in variants of metal, fibre, carbon and are made by manufacturers, such as the New Zealand-based OBO. PR Sreejesh, who keeps the goal for the Indian hockey team, says: “The introduction of grill masks while defending penalty corners is a good step since we can’t predict the trajectory of the ball when the penalty area is crowded.”

StemGuard (Cricket): Clip-on attachment offering protection to back of head, neck.
Manufactured by British firm Masuri
Metal grill masks (Field hockey): Face mask worn by defenders, protects players from facial injuries
Manufactured by New Zealand-based company OBO
Chemical strip on helmets (American football): Material developed at University of Pennsylvania that changes colour on impact to measure force of collision

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