Modern sports as we know them are products of the Industrial Revolution. Increased leisure time allowed for time to play, and mass production provided affordable sporting equipment. And from very early on, safety gear of all types was widespread during the rise of popular sports — after all, safer activities allow for wider and longer participation. Yet, as history demonstrates, sports eye protection has always been the final frontier of sports gear — even today.
The milestones in protective eyewear presented below speak to the need for a greater commitment to eye safety from all involved. Each year, tens of thousands of sports-related eye injuries occur. And most of these injuries are preventable through the use of sports eye protection. However, national, collegiate and local guidelines are oftentimes few and far between when it comes to protecting athletes of all ages.
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. Tyng wore the mask after becoming increasingly concerned about permanent disfigurement. The media’s reaction did not always share his sympathies.
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)
Throughout the history of the sport, several prominent NBA players have worn protective eyewear during play, 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 January 1968 for protection after having his cornea scratched in an NCAA game. In today’s NBA game, all eye protection must conform to the contour of the face and have no sharp or protruding edges. And approval is 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. Nevertheless, it wasn’t until after the accidental death of Dale Earnhardt in 2001 that NASCAR made full-face helmets compulsory.
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. In 2013, the National Hockey League (NHL) mandated that any player with fewer than 25 professional games under his belt that season must wear a protective visor. For international competition such as the Olympics, male hockey players born in 1975 or later must wear a visor that meets certain international standards. For the Olympic women, all players must wear full facemasks. Full facemasks are not required for NHL players, though are commonly mandated in amateur leagues.
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, visors of many different colors are prevalent throughout league. However, the NCAA, as well as many high school and pee wee leagues, have prohibited all but clear visors 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.
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)
Although the use of goggles is increasingly prevalent in basketball, it is still quite rare in the world of professional soccer. However, 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. At the time, Davids was required to receive permission from the International Federation of Association Football for both the eyewear and use of eyewash that contained banned substances under international doping guidelines.
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. 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.