While the Big Ten and Pac-12, two of college football’s major conferences in the U.S., have canceled their fall seasons due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Japanese leagues are preparing to stage their upcoming campaigns, albeit in an irregular format.

The X League, Japan’s top football league, is scheduled to start its shortened season Oct. 24. The Kansai Collegiate American Football League, which has produced 12 of the last 13 collegiate national champions and 42 overall, announced it will stage its 2020 season under a tournament-style format from mid-October. The rival Kanto Collegiate League will use a modified round-robin format for its competition, which begins in November.

The most important and difficult challenge is to play the game safely and protect players and staff from the coronavirus. In order to lower the risk of infection, some football leagues are moving toward requiring players to wear a shield on their faceguard.

“We heard high school clubs say their school would not allow them to resume football activity without any proper measures against droplet infection,’’ Yuji Shimizu, managing director of the Japan American Football Association told The Japan Times. “Then we organized a subcommittee to study shields in June.’’

By then the JAFA learned some clubs had already tried to use self-made shields. The organization discourage this in an announcement on its website on June 23, noting the safety of self-made shields could not be guaranteed.

“On the other hand, however, we, as an organizing body of American football in Japan, have to provide the proper information not only on the merits and the demerits of wearing a shield but on the products in the market that can be safely used,’’ Shimizu said.

That was when Dr. Hiroto Fujiya of St. Marianna University School of Medicine conducted an experiment aimed at showing the effects of the shields. Fujiya, a board member of the National Football Association (the organizing body of the X League), prepared four types of helmets — one with no shield on the faceguard (A), one with an eye shield on the faceguard (B), one featuring a mouth shield on faceguard (C) and a helmet with a face shield (eye and mouth shield) on the faceguard (D). Fujiya sprayed gas from inside of the helmet and showed how the it passed through the faceguard.

Helmets fitted with various face shields are seen on display at a QB Club shop in Tokyo’s Shibuya district.  | HIROSHI IKEZAWA
Helmets fitted with various face shields are seen on display at a QB Club shop in Tokyo’s Shibuya district.  | HIROSHI IKEZAWA

Fujiya concluded that helmets C and D had could help prevent droplet infection.

“My experiment showed mouth and face shields prevent spit from flying forward. I cannot say the exact percentage, but the mouth and face shields surely are more effective than not wearing anything,’’ Fujiya said to The Japan Times. “I have not seen or heard of any similar experiments on shields so far.”

Fujiya, however, warns wearing shields during practice or in comes with the risk of heatstroke, especially in summer.

“In another experiment of mine, the WBGT (wet-bulb globe temperature) of the space between the face and shield is highest when wearing a face shield (which means high risk for heatstroke) and, in order, lowers when wearing a mouth shield, eye shield and wearing nothing,” Fujiya said. “I strongly recommend taking good measures to prevent heatstroke and wearing a mouth shield to prevent droplet infection.’’

Fujiya pointed out that the mouth shield would also work to prevent droplets from spreading in the huddle, but said mouthpiece use is still one of the issues that needs to be addressed.

“For a mouthpiece that is connected to a faceguard with a strap, you can remove it from your mouth by pulling the strap, but for the lip-guard type of mouthpiece (without a strap, which a player uses their hands to remove and insert), this is an issue where we have to seek a solution,’’ Fujiya said.

When the X League announced its 2020 schedule in late July, it also told the clubs that wearing a mouth shield is mandatory for the upcoming season.

Wearing a helmet with a mouth shield will be mandatory in the X League this season. | HIROSHI IKEZAWA
Wearing a helmet with a mouth shield will be mandatory in the X League this season. | HIROSHI IKEZAWA

“We have been considering it necessary. We decided to make it a rule for this season based on the discussion of JAFA’s subcommittee,’’ said Riichiro Fukahori, the commissioner of the NFA. “We have financial aid from the Japan Sports Agency and government, so about half of the clubs’ cost to buy shields will be covered. We have been talking with football equipment shops to secure enough shields by opening day at the latest. Hopefully the teams get the shields so that they can use them in practice.’’

As of mid-August, there are two products are on the market — the “Splash Shield” by Schutt Sports, an American manufacturer of sports equipment, and the “Spitshield” produced by the Japanese company QB Club.

“We have been working on developing a shield to prevent droplet infection since March and have sold 5,000 Spitshield units. The shields should be strong enough to not break with contact and made of material that won’t cut your fingers or cut others,” said QB Club, which uses polycarbonate for the shields. “In Japan, 75 percent of players use helmets from Riddell (Sports Inc., a football equipment company based in the U.S.), but Schutt’s Splash Shield, which we also sell at shops, isn’t necessarily a perfect fit for Riddell’s (helmets). Ours have four different types of shape and are good for any helmet and faceguard.’’

The JAFA is leaving the decision regarding the shields to individual leagues. The Kanto college league is discussing if wearing a shield should be mandatory while the Kansai league has asked schools to wear the face shield but is still on the lookout for a better solution for preventing droplet infection.

While many players aren’t to used to playing with shields on their faceguards, but it could become a new normal in football at least here in Japan this season.

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