Monday, May 24, 2010

Science vs. Emotion

It happens all the time. A person suffers a major injury, we find a way to blame someone or something, and we clamor for a rules change.

These campaigns are always well-intentioned, but they aren't always well-executed.

Such is the case with two recent movements in sports. Both are the result of injuries, both have some serious pros behind them, and both are bad ideas.

We'll start in college hockey, where there is a call for half-shields in place of full face masks on players.

Why? Well, there are some who feel the players would be safer if they didn't wear full protection over their faces. The theory is that if everyone wore a half-shield, they'd magically stop getting sticks up and hitting people in the head.

Of course, if you've watched 20 NHL games in your life, you know this is stupid.

Science also seems to disagree.

This study lumped partial face protection and full face protection in together, though the evidence shows a partial face shield is closer to having no protection than full protection. The number of concussions in each case wasn't statistically significant -- 4 with none, 5 with half, 2 with full --but the real difference is in facial injuries. 52 injuries with no face protection, 45 with half protection, and only 16 with full protection.

That theory I was talking about? It's rooted in emotion. While that isn't always a bad thing, it's not a good thing in this case.

Instead of protecting college hockey players, we're going to open them up to more serious injuries. If the half-shield plan passes, it will only last until an unsuspecting Yale defender is turned into Ian Laperriere.

Do we need to let that happen to someone? Why bother?

It's not a safety improvement. It's an emotional reaction to headshots, but what the people having the reaction don't realize is that those headshots are happening in the NHL, where the players wear half-shields. Guys still get high-sticked in the face, they still get hit in the face by elbows, and they still block shots and passes with their faces. In none of those cases will a half-shield offer more protection than a full face mask.

If you want the college game to be bloodier, vote for this!

Elsewhere in sports, emotions are taking over in California. There, a young pitcher's life flashed before his eyes, when a batted ball came flying at him faster than he could protect himself from it.

Now, his family and others are going to bat, trying to get the state government to ban metal bats.

Assembly Bill 7, which will be considered this week by the state senate, would impose a two-year moratorium on the use of metal bats in high school baseball in California.

... Sandberg's team and the entire league voluntarily switched to wood bats after the accident. Community members were selling "Got Wood?" T-shirts, with the proceeds going to help pay Sandberg's medical bills. California assemblyman Jared Huffman, who represents Marin County, authored the bill to ban the metal bats just weeks after the March 11 accident.

Of course, it's not that simple.

Mike May, spokesman for the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, said he's been devoting almost all of his time to defending the metal bat since Sandberg's accident. May has been plying lawmakers and members of the media with one study after another to show that accidents like Sandberg's are no more likely with metal bats than with wooden ones.

"We just want the decision in California to be made on facts and data, not emotions," May told FanHouse.

The metal bats of today are safer than those of a few years ago, May said, because of standards in place since 2003 to regulate the Ball Exit Speed Ratio (BESR) off metal bats.

"Many people don't realize that the baseball bat of 1980 can't be used today," May said. "People think bats have gotten more juiced up, and frankly it's the opposite."

May also said that the NCAA is adopting a standard to further weaken metal bats in 2011, with the National Federation of State High School Associations adopting it in 2012.

The next step is to engineer the metal bats to have a smaller sweet spot, but the science is there.

Meanwhile, a move to ban wooden bats makes the sport more expensive, at a time when we don't need to be doing that ... in any sport. The science is questionable, the change would be costly, and it's a story (rightfully) full of emotion.

(Give the California Legislature credit. This proposed ban is only for two years. It's not meant to be permanent, even if that's what would eventually happen.)

No one wants to see a kid debilitated by an injury, but we have better things to legislate than things that will not necessarily improve safety in sports.

Letting emotion get in the way of sound decisions based on science is not good. It doesn't help anyone, and it leaves us wondering in ten years what the hell we were thinking.

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