By: Ben Bryant, WGCA contributing writer
On June 15, 2013, Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Alex Cobb delivered a fastball to the waiting Kansas City batter, Eric Hosmer. Hosmer made solid contact with his bat, sending the ball straight back toward the mound. Cobb, who was at the end of his throwing motion, falling off the mound and in a vulnerable, defenseless position, could not dodge out of the way of the incoming 103 mph (166 km/h) line drive. The ball hit Cobb squarely in the head just above his right ear. For the crowd and the audience watching on television, the worst part was the sound – a hollow thump that reverberated throughout Tropicana Field. Trainers rushed to Cobb, who was lying face down on the turf, to render assistance. Although Cobb never lost consciousness, he was eventually placed on a stretcher, carted off the field, and taken to the nearest emergency room.
The true dangers of concussions and head in-juries are finally beginning to be understood by the medical community and parents. As a high school golf coach, I have to undergo concussion protocol training every year and have a plan of action in place in case of head injuries. Over the last few years, I have had several players who have come from other sports whose parents have become more and more concerned about the physicality and head injury risk in sports like baseball or football. As the parent of a four-year-old on the cusp of athletic greatness myself, I have struggled with the need to balance sports participation and safety for my own son. This is becoming a common situation for parents all across the United States and the rest of the world. As a result, the sport of golf – as a mainstream, safe alternative to the other major sports – stands poised to attract a large, new generation of young players.
Alex Cobb was lucky. In the end, he suffered only minor injuries, including a small cut and a concussion. He missed two months, returning in August for the Rays. His injury, and others like his, raises the question that has been asked several times over the last several years: should pitchers wear head protection? Strangely enough, despite there being several companies that manufacture head protection specifically for pitchers, Major League Baseball has not adopted new rules requiring pitchers to wear it. Even Cobb said that he does not want to wear extra protection. The reasoning behind their refusal is that these helmets make the player look funny. In fact, so far only one pitcher, Alex Torres of the Atlanta Braves, has decided to wear the extra protection,and he is routinely derided by fans and even other players for the way it makes him look.
This is the current state of baseball and many other sports. While there are changes being made in the children’s levels, the professional leagues seem reluctant to embrace safety out of fear of watering down their game or changing fundamental appearances. American football, of course, is having the greatest struggle with these new revelations. New rules have been imposed with the intention to reduce head injuries, but the fact of the matter is that the professionals who play these sports are dragging their feet when it comes to embracing those changes. Ed Reed, the future Hall of Fame safety for the Baltimore Ravens, was recently asked about the dangers of head injuries in football. When asked whether he would want to be tested for CTE – a condition caused by repeated concussions and head injuries– Reed replied that he would rather not be tested because he did not want to know the damage the game was doing to him.
Historically in the United States, baseball and football have made up the bulk of sports that parents choose to involve their children in. Despite changes being made to children’s sports leagues– new tackling methods in football, helmets for defensive players in baseball, banning headers in soccer, etc. – parents face a difficult decision when involving their child in a sport where the professional role models have not embraced the new safety culture. Cobb continues to pitch without a helmet, and anyone who has watched an NFL game recently knows that head injuries are still a major problem in football.
The difficulty faced by other sports creates opportunities for the sport of golf. In 2010, the Wall Street Journal and other media organizations wrote about the problem of the lack of young players in the world of golf. But so much has changed since then with the rise of great young players like Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth. As the dangers endemic to other sports become more well-known, golf is positioned to become the go-to sport as parents search for safer alter-natives to football, baseball,hockey, and other high-impact physical games.
As teaching professionals,we need to use this opportunity as a recruiting tool to get golf clubs into the hands of younger players, although many of the traditional barriers to golf still exist. Equipment is still expensive, and the traditional 18-hole golf course might not be the most exciting thing to a 10-year-old. But golf’s relative safety versus other traditional sports has given it a new leg up in this era of head injuries in sports.