Play (Regulated) Ball!

The Consumer Product Safety Commission toys with kids' sports.

In early June, several reporters gathered for an unusual press conference at the Baltimore Orioles' Camden Yards stadium. The main speaker was not Cal Ripken Jr. or some other baseball great, but a bureaucrat: Ann Brown, the chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission. She was using the ballpark to reel out statistics on her new pet cause--injuries in children's baseball. She bashed the traditional hardball as unsafe for children's play.

At the press conference, Brown touted a new CPSC report recommending softer baseballs with spongy cores made of polyurethane, rubber, or kapok, and protective equipment such as batting helmets with face guards, and break-away bases, which loosen from their anchoring on impact, for children's baseball leagues. "We want kids outside in the sunshine, not inside in an emergency room," she declared. According to the CPSC report, emergency rooms treated 162,000 children for baseball-related injuries last year--less than 1 percent of all children playing the game.

Brown didn't mention that, according to the only peer-reviewed studies on the subject, a softer ball might be even more likely to put a child in the emergency room than a standard ball. "These softer balls might reduce the sting, but they're not going to prevent you from getting killed," says David Janda, an orthopedic surgeon who heads the Institute for Preventative Sports Medicine in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Janda is an award-winning sports medicine researcher who spoke at the Pre-Olympic Medical Conference just before the 1996 summer games and has written a chapter for an International Olympic Committee textbook on safety in sports.

The baseball report is just one part of CPSC Chairman Brown's ambitious agenda. Children's sports are one of her "highest priorities," she has said, and she wants every playground in America to follow the CPSC's rules. She wants to develop guidelines for baseball and other activities that "will be a bible for the industry and jurisdictions."

Coming on the heels of the press conference, the agency also voted 2-1 to consider a petition to require all batting helmets to have attached face guards. To act on the petition, the commission would have to declare that a batting helmet without the face shield is a "hazardous substance" simply because it could be made safer. That position struck CPSC Commissioner Mary Gall as absurd. "Carried to its logical conclusion," she wrote in her dissent, "if a helmet with a faceguard justifies a ban of helmets without faceguards, helmets made out of kevlar (such as the military services might wear) might justify a ban on plastic helmets."

The Camden Yards press conference was typical of Brown's colorful tenure as CPSC chairman. Appointed by President Clinton in 1994, the former toy safety activist at Americans for Democratic Action told reporters at one of her first news conferences, "I've never met a microphone I didn't like, and I plan to use this agency as a bully pulpit." Critics charge that Brown uses her "bully pulpit" to circumvent regulatory procedures, which have a lengthy notice-and- comment period, by pressuring companies afraid of negative publicity into "voluntarily" agreeing with her recommendations.

Former CPSC Commissioner Carol Dawson says that some of Brown's pronouncements are "worse than regulations, because they have not been subjected to the same scrutiny as a regulation has." Dawson notes that with Brown's pronouncements on soft baseballs and other issues, critics were never given a chance to air their views, as they would have in a formal notice-and-comment period.

And critics of the CPSC's soft baseball decision have quite a case. Sports medicine expert Janda charged in a letter to the agency that it was "step[ping] to the plate with a corked bat." Janda found that the softer balls the CPSC recommends frequently weigh more and can stick to the chest longer, and thus can hit the chest with greater force than standard balls do. A 1992 study by Janda and his research team, published in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine, reported that "all the tests and comparisons failed to demonstrate a significant advantage with respect to impact force reduction using softer core baseballs" and that softer balls sometimes "exacerbated impact effects."

In a small footnote to an appendix of its report, the CPSC acknowledged that the most recent of the 38 chest-impact deaths it has recorded since 1973 occurred last year after a child was struck with a soft baseball. Newspaper accounts report that the 6-year-old boy suffered a cardiac arrest after a ball his father gently lobbed to him bounced off his glove and hit him in the chest.

The CPSC stated that "the agency has found no convincing evidence that softer balls increase the risk of chest-impact death." It dismisses Janda's studies by charging that the pigs and crash dummies he "used to mimic chest impact deaths in children were not accurate representations of the way death occurs to children on the baseball field." Janda points out that while no models can perfectly simulate the effects on children, the crash dummies he used were of the same quality that the Department of Transportation uses in crash tests. Furthermore, he notes that CPSC officials gave his study a thumbs-up before it was published.

The agency conducted no original research to substantiate that soft baseballs were safer. Susan Kyle, the CPSC report's author, says that Janda's studies were "the only ones we could find" on the subject of chest impact. Janda found only a 4 percent to 8 percent lower risk of head injuries from soft baseballs. But he doesn't believe that compensates for the increased risk for chest injuries--especially since most of the 68 ball-impact deaths the CPSC has recorded since 1973 involve the chest.

"His study was pretty tight," says Robert Verhalen, who reviewed Janda's study as associate executive director for epidemiology at the CPSC in the early '90s. "The commission seems to have rejected his study out of hand." Verhalen, who is now retired, adds, "They run off with less data than that when it's a cause they're in favor of."

It's very frustrating for us to spend 12 years of research on a subject and then have the government come in and disseminate the wrong information," Janda says. This baseball controversy illustrates that government agencies hardly ever just disseminate information-- especially when they issue safety recommendations. The newsletter Sporting Goods Intelligence reports that the agency has "float[ed] the idea of requiring labeling on balls saying which ones are appropriate for younger players."

The CPSC report notes that at least five cities already require organized children's baseball leagues to use the softer balls, and the report will likely encourage more to follow suit, even absent regulations. Though the CPSC has no jurisdiction over organized children's baseball leagues, its recommendations will likely spur lawsuits against leagues not using the equipment it recommends.

"You just know there's going to be more lawsuits if a federal official makes a splashy presentation," says Walter Olson, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of The Litigation Explosion. "It changes the climate, gets lawyers more interested, and raises the visibility [of an issue]." No federal regulations require soft baseballs (yet), but Olson points out that once the matter gets into a courtroom, "no one knows what's lawful or what isn't when you're dealing with liability."

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