With all the focus on concussions and football, it’s not surprising this development slipped under the radar.
ASTM International has begun developing a standard for defensive masks to be worn by female softball players after seeing hearing of growing interest from the industry. And make no mistake, there’s plenty of pushback, too.
First, the background. The mask, standard WK70909, would be worn without a helmet and would be used by infielders and other defensive players. It would protect players from injuries to their faces resulting from batted balls.
While there are plenty of faceguards on the market (a Google search can bring up countless images), there previously has not been an ASTM standard. But the time appears to have arrived.
“We see a growing interest from players, families, leagues, and the industry to come together and try to provide more protection,” said Gregg Hartley, a consultant who is a member of ASTM International’s sports equipment, playing surfaces, and facilities committee (F08). “The standard is being developed at the request of the manufacturers of these products as the use of the products currently in the market is increasing.”
While there has been no across-the-board requirement for masks, the demand is ticking upward.
“At this time, four state high school athletic associations mandate the use of such face masks in women’s play and many of the youth and club play leagues do as well,” notes Hartley. “The industry wants a common standard for performance of the product to ensure all products in the market provide the requisite level of player protection.”
And, adds Hartley, “many of the products currently offered in the market offer a high level of player protection and quality. One of the primary goals of creating the standard is to assure new products entering the market offer the same high level of quality and player protection. And players and parents can be assured of that quality by looking for the ASTM reference on the product.”
Presently, NCAA does not mandate protective masks for anyone but catchers, but does list such equipment for defensive and offensive players under “Optional Protective Equipment” in its Softball Rules.
Hartley says that the standard could help the industry and others to understand a minimum level of protection and quality for defensive masks. He adds that softball governing bodies could use the standard as a level of player protection that they can specify.
But while the use of protective masks has seen a groundswell of interest, it has also, to nobody’s surprise, seen equal parts resistance. Some coaches and players claim they’re cumbersome and that they are a distraction while others say not all injuries can be prevented by their use.
NPR interviewed high school softball players on the subject and found varying opinions. Some wanted to stay safe and said masks did not interfere with their vision or their concentration. Others differed; one girl who returned to the field following a severe concussion from a ball strike to her head, refused to wear facial protection.
"I just don't like it,” she noted. “It gets in my way. It looks pretty stupid if you ask me." And besides, she added, "The way I play is I'm going to go hard or I'm going to go home. And if I get hit in the face, then I'm meant to get hit in the face."
USA TODAY notes that a 2017 study published in the Journal of Athletic Training looked at ball-contact injuries in 11 NCAA sports from 2009-10 through 2014-15. The conclusion was that softball, women's field hockey and baseball had the highest rates of that type of injury. Softball reported the most ball-contact injuries in the study, and 37.4 percent of them were to the head or face, compared with 19.6 percent for baseball. Reaction time is reduced in softball because it is played on a smaller field.
A separate study reviewed head and facial injuries sustained by softball players between 2013 and 2017 and found that an overwhelming number of those injured were female (72.1 percent).
Women overall seem more willing to consider protective masks, whereas men do not. And Florida baseball player Ryan Larson, who was interviewed by USA TODAY, believed that baseball culture, as a rule, wouldn’t be conducive to masks. (He himself wore one after sustaining a facial injury – but knew he was an exception to the rule).
"Guys just don't want to show weakness," he said. "You don't want to give the opponent an upper hand; 'Hey, I'm worried about this happening.' I definitely say that's a part of it.”
Hartley says he assumes male softball players could adopt the use of mask for defensive players, “but have not expressed any need or desire to at this time.”
Despite the contention, it is likely the committee will have an easier time developing a standard and getting approval than proponents of protective gear face for other women’s sports – like lacrosse.
While it’s difficult to determine an exact timeline for the creation of the new standard, Hartley notes the committee “hopes to have a draft standard to go out for vote/comment within one year.”