Since the very first basketball made it into a hoop and the first batter hit what we now know as a homerun, the need for safety gear of all types became clear early on in the history of sports. Even as popularity soared, the dangers of sports were real, including eye injuries.
Fast forward to modern day, tens of thousands of sports-related eye injuries occur every year. And most of these injuries are preventable through the use of protective eyewear.
According to a recent Harris Poll, the majority of American adults are unaware how common traumatic eye injuries are while playing sports without eye protection. Why the large gap? Perhaps history is partially to blame. Eye protection has always been the final frontier of sports gear — even today. Here are some milestones in sports eye safety we applaud:
Fencing — Mask (1200 B.C.)
It is no surprise that protective gear and the sport of fencing go hand in hand. Evidence from Egypt dating back to 1200 B.C. depicts a type of fencing complete with masks and protective weapon tips. Although the mask’s design and materials undoubtedly changed over the next few thousand years, its purpose has remained the same.
Baseball — Catcher’s Mask (1877)
On April 12, 1877, in a game against a semiprofessional team, James Tyng of Harvard College became the first baseball player to use a catcher’s mask. Though Major League baseball players are still not required to wear eye gear, baseball continues to top the charts as one of the most dangerous sports for the eye without proper protection.
Skiing/Snowboarding — Goggles (1965)
The double-lens, anti-fog ski goggle was invented and patented by Robert Earl Smith in the mid-1960s. For many years, skiers struggled with single-pane goggles that would fog up from moisture and humidity. An orthodontist, Smith began using dental tools, foam, and glue to build the prototypes that would eventually become today’s industry standard.
Basketball — Goggles (1968)
Several NBA players wore protective eyewear, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, Horace Grant, Kurt Rambis, and Amar’e Stoudemire. Perhaps the most famous, Abdul-Jabbar first began wearing basketball goggles in 1968 after having his cornea scratched in an NCAA game. There are other common eye injuries associated with basketball, such as retinal detachments. Studies show eyewear on the court isn’t a bad idea – basketball is the leading cause of sports-related eye injuries. Though still not required, NBA players today have the option to wear eye protection. All eyewear is approved on a game-to-game basis.
Motor Racing — Full-Face Crash Helmet (1968)
Open-face, hard-shell helmets were popular in motorcycle and automobile racing throughout the first half of the twentieth century. In 1968, the California company Bell introduced the first full-face crash helmet, the Star. That year, Dan Gurney became the first driver ever to use the helmet in both Grand Prix and Indianapolis 500 racing. After the accidental death of Dale Earnhardt in 2001, NASCAR made full-face helmets mandatory.
Hockey — Protective Visor (1973)
The first professional hockey player to wear a helmet visor was Greg Neeld in 1973, after he had lost his left eye due to an opponent’s high stick. He continued to advocate for a mandatory visor rule, and in 2013, the National Hockey League (NHL) required any player with fewer than 25 professional games under his belt that season to wear a protective visor. The Olympics requires male hockey players born in 1975 or later to wear a visor that meets certain international standards. All female Olympic hockey players must wear full facemasks.
Football — Protective Visor (1984)
The first NFL player to use a visor was Mark Mullaney of the Minnesota Vikings in 1984, so that he could protect a healing eye injury. In today’s game, the NCAA, as well as many high school and pee wee leagues, have prohibited all but clear eye shields so that training staff and coaches can easily view a player’s face and eyes to determine an injury and whether or not the player is conscious. In addition to being clear, not tinted, the NCAA requires all eyewear be made from rigid material.
Racquetball — Goggles (1995)
In September 1995, the American Amateur Racquetball Association (AARA) — a predecessor of the Olympic USA Racquetball Association — mandated the use of protective lensed eyewear for all participants. According to AARA rules, a player who fails to wear proper eyewear will be assessed a technical foul and a timeout to obtain the proper eyewear, while a second infraction in the same match will result in an immediate forfeiture.
Soccer — Goggles (1999)
The most well-known example of goggles on the soccer field was in 1999. Edgar Davids, a popular player on the world-renowned Dutch clubs Ajax and Juventus, began wearing goggles following an operation on his right eye for glaucoma. Davids was required to receive permission from FIFA, the international soccer association. FIFA now says, “In view of the new technology that has made sports spectacles much safer, referees should show tolerance when authorizing their use, particularly for younger players.”
Lacrosse — Goggles (2005)
Based on recommendations by the American Academy of Ophthalmology and the American Academy of Pediatrics, US Lacrosse — the national governing body of the sport — began recommending the use of protective eyewear in 2004. A year later, the organization started mandating the use of eyewear — but not helmets or facemasks — at all levels of the women’s game. Updates to safety requirements were made in 2020 for young girl players. For the men’s game, helmets and facemasks — but not eyewear — are required.
Field Hockey — Goggles (2011)
In April 2011, the National Federation of State High School Associations began requiring protective eyewear — either the polycarbonate lens or wire frame style — for all field hockey players. The International Hockey Federation and USA Field Hockey, however, do not have such a mandate and strictly prohibit the use of wire- or cage-type goggles.
Squash — Goggles (2012)
On January 1, 2012, U.S. Squash — the national governing body for the sport — mandated that hardball and softball squash players and coaches must wear protective eyewear during all sanctioned events. This requirement came 20 years after former U.S. champion Will Carlin suffered a torn and detached retina when his opponent’s ball struck his unprotected eye.