Should athletes put safety ahead of fashion? Or better yet should fashion in sports reflect a concern for safety? Concussion data is motivating some top pro athletes, including Giancarlo Stanton and Wayne Rooney, to sacrifice what is now thought of as fashionable for safety. And, despite a lot of grousing from fans and those who cover sports, that is great.
Remember the introduction of the football face mask? In the 1950s many greeted their appearance with scorn. Some of our long-dead relatives dismissed them as only fit for "sissies." Today the race to protect the face has gotten so intense that the NFL has had to step in to control the size and weight of the face mask. They have become one of the coolest parts of football apparel.
These days there is still some snickering among the old guard about weenie quarterbacks who wear rib guards, vests and flak jackets.
C'mon now -- they may look bulky, but do they make sense in terms of safety? Sure.
And will they become fashionable if they really do prevent injuries? Of course.
The same goes for new helmet shapes and sizes: If they work they have to be celebrated, not snickered at because they look different. And while it once was cool to snap and re-snap your chin strap and let it dangle even during active play, new designs make that much more difficult, so the era of the cool dangling chin strap is appropriately headed to the NFL film archives.
A recent Mets/Miami baseball game showed the new trend in baseball in athletic gear: protection. The National League's most feared hitter from 2014, Giancarlo Stanton, who lost a good part of last season when he took a pitch to his face, wore a cheek-covering extension on his helmet. He faced off against Alex Torres, a Mets reliever who wore an external cushion around the outside of his hat to help protect his head from come-backers that are way too fast to duck when slugged by guys like Stanton.
And pro soccer is getting into the act too. At a Major League Soccer matchup between New York City Football Club and Philadelphia Union, the Union's goalkeeper John McCarthy wore a soft helmet covering his entire head. Britain's Manchester United's Captain Wayne Rooney wore a headband version back in 2013 after a head injury he sustained in a game against Manchester City.
Some folks don't like it -- "not manly," "looks funny," "not what I wore when I played the game." Football and baseball gear that strives to make things safer has gotten a fair share of nasty tweets and broadcaster comments claiming these safety-conscious athletes look dumb, ridiculous or both.
Dumb? Is it really unfashionable to try and protect yourself against injury in playing sports? Isn't that a great fashion statement? Who is being dumb about the new gear? Those who wear it or their critics?
It is likely that when leather helmets first showed up in American football, they were considered by your great-grandparents as whatever the turn-of-the-last-century word was for "goofy." Same for face masks in hockey. Yup, your grandparents rooted for guys in the goal named Gump, Red, Mr. Zero and The Cat, whose faces had more scars and stitches than the fiend in a Hollywood slasher movie.
When someone wears something different, it stands out. But this shouldn't preclude change. League styles go through phases: MLB uniforms used to be characterized by tighter pants tucked into stirrup socks; now its baggy pants down to the shoes. NFL players used to wear loose jerseys untucked. Now most players are wearing form-fitting outfits. That is partly fashion, but there is function too. Hockey pads, gloves and helmets are worn to protect the body. Baseball players wear pants instead of shorts to protect their legs while sliding. There is no better reason for a team or league to instigate changes in fashion than data about concussions or face-injury risk.
The change to safer gear is overdue at all levels of sport. Baseball is a Top 3 contributor to head-injury deaths among high school and college athletes; 5 percent to 10 percent of athletes will experience concussions in a season, with football players and soccer players at highest risk.
The best athletes are role models whether they like it or not. If they wear hat cushions, soccer helmets, mouth guards, chin straps and batting face-guards, then these will quickly become acceptable for anyone who plays the game. Fashion always takes its cues from leaders.
If Tony Romo wears a vest or Stanton wears a face-guarding helmet, then no matter how much the dopes in the booth or the stands sneer, safety will become fashionable.
Arthur Caplan, head of the division of medical ethics at New York University's Langone Medical Center, is academic dean of NYU Sports and Society.
Brendan Parent, a clinical assistant professor of Sports and Society at NYU School of Professional Studies, co-authored this with Caplan for the Chicago Tribune.