The NFL’s concussion crisis once again reared its ugly head this week when 24-year-old linebacker Chris Borland of the San Francisco 49ers announced his retirement from the NFL after just one season, citing the risk of brain injuries.
While concussions are a huge issue for all football players, past and present, John Jaso of the Tampa Bay Rays is a reminder that baseball has its own concussion problem that often flies under the radar.
Jaso is a catcher. But as he recently explained in an interview with Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times, he is not sure if he can play catcher now as each of his last two seasons were cut short by concussions.
The concussions were so bad that it nearly ended Jaso’s career at age 30, he said.
“Working out on the field trying to get back from his second concussion in just more than a year was troubling enough for John Jaso. Light running left him dizzy, simple pitch-blocking drills made him want to throw up. • An even more jarring indication of just how bad off he was came when Jaso, a man who hikes mountains for fun, rode an elevator up to the press box for a look down at the Oakland field being converted for football. Suddenly, he found himself gripping a desktop in fear of falling over … Jaso was all too familiar with the physical symptoms — the migraine headaches, the vertigo, the queasiness, the inability to focus or even see clearly. But the emotional aspects of the second concussion, the one that cut short his season again last year and altered — after nearly ending — the baseball career that has brought him back to the Rays, was worse. • He was stripped of his usual zeal and zest, left passionless about even his most favourite topics, wrestling with an emptiness he would eventually recognise as depression. • Plus, he was scared. Not as much by what he knew, but what he didn’t.”
Prior to the 2011 season, MLB instituted a new concussion protocol that loosely sounded similar to some of the changes made in the NFL. The new policy included protocols for evaluating players who may have suffered a concussion and put in steps for allowing those players to return to action. In addition, MLB added a new seven-day disabled list for players who had suffered a concussion but not one considered serious enough to be placed on the regular 15-day disabled list.
MLB also made a much-publicized change prior to the 2014 season that limited collisions at home plate between a base runner and a catcher, a move designed to protect catchers from injuries, including concussions.
However, Jaso’s concussions did not come from a collision with a base runner. Rather, they occurred during the normal course of his job, as a result of repeatedly being struck in the mask by foul tips. This is similar to the concern in football that accumulation of numerous smaller hits can be just as dangerous as the big hits that have drawn more attention.
One study of high school football players showed that concussions are more commonly caused by “many hits over time” as opposed to a single blow. Another study of football and hockey athletes reached a similar conclusion.
Jaso is not alone. At least seven catchers spent time on MLB’s seven-day concussion disabled list during the 2013 season, according to Lindsey Berra of MLB.com. Two of those catchers, David Ross of the Boston Red Sox and Alex Avila of the Detroit Tigers, told Berra they had suffered concussions from foul tips and had gone so far as to switch to old-school steel cage masks that many feel do a better job of disbursing the force of impact.
A spokesperson for Major League Baseball told Business Insider that they are “actively studying catcher’s helmets” and continue to study the issue of concussions in baseball, noting that their medical director works closely with team doctors and trainers and independently reviews the cases of all players diagnosed with a concussion.
Both Ross and Avila are still catchers. The same is not true for Jaso who is not sure if he will ever be able to catch again.
“As far as catching goes, if they were to say, ‘Here, catch tomorrow,’ I don’t know,” Jaso told Topkin. “That’s the scary part. Like I don’t know if I could take one, take 40 foul tips, what it would be.”
Luckily for Jaso he has a good bat and he was acquired this off-season by the Rays to serve as their designated hitter.
Major League Baseball has done a great job being proactive on the issue of concussions and catcher safety. But none of the changes so far have addressed foul tips.
Meanwhile, pitchers are throwing harder than ever and catchers being hit by foul tips are a part of the game. MLB says they are studying helmets. But as of yet there is nothing to indicate that catchers won’t continue to suffer concussions simply by doing their job.
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