"You're a Coward If You Try to Protect Yourself"

Public health historian Kathleen Bachynski on the parallels between refusing to wear goalie masks in hockey and face masks during the COVID-19 pandemic

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The following is a real thing that really happened in the United States of America in the Year of Our Lord 2020: on the steps of the Capitol building in the state of Kentucky, in the middle of a viral pandemic that has now killed more than 150,000 of their fellow citizens, a group of roughly 1,000 protestors fed up with business restrictions put in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus were exhorted to “take off your masks”—and responded with an enthusiastic roar.

Of course, very few of the protesters actually proceeded to remove the protective masks that research indicates can help stymie COVID-19, because as Louisville Courier Journal reporter Joseph Gerth noted from the scene, “hardly anyone, other than reporters and photographers, wore them to begin with.”

Anti-mask sentiment is nothing new in American life: during the second wave of a deadly Spanish Flu pandemic in 1919, a group of San Franciscans that included several prominent business leaders and physicians formed an “Anti-Mask League” to fight against a city requirement that every resident wear a face mask in public.

Why the fierce, seemingly irrational opposition to a relatively cheap and easy way to prevent sickness, suffering, and death? For answers, Hreal Sports spoke with Kathleen Bachynski, a public health historian and professor at Muhlenberg College who teaches and studies ethics, epidemiology, sports, and injury prevention—and who recently published a scholarly article on the long and tortured history of protective mask and helmet adoption in hockey. Turns out there are some striking parallels!

(The following conversation has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity).


Hreal Sports: Let’s start with sports, and the story of the first NHL player to wear a face mask, Jacques Plante of the Montreal Canadiens. He had his nose broken by a flying puck in 1959—the fourth nose break of his career. And that seems to be his personal nose-break limit, because he subsequently starts wearing a Plexiglass face mask.

So what happens next? Coaches, managers, other players, and fans criticize and make fun of him. And it takes another decade for goalies—not all positions, just goalies—to largely adopt facial protection. 

Players already were wearing pads—and cups!—to protect other valuable parts of their body. Protecting your face seems pretty reasonable. Yet it prompted ridicule and reluctance to follow suit. Why?

Bachynski: There's no way to answer this without talking about masculinity. Hockey has been an incredibly dangerous game for a long time. And all the way back in the 1920s and 30s, there were periodic efforts to introduce helmets and masks that usually happened after a tragedy—there was a Princeton hockey player who died [from a head injury] in the 1920s, and an NHL player who almost died in the early 1930s. And the reactions to those efforts were very similar to what happened with Plante.

One example I pulled up for my paper involved two NHL players in 1934 who tried wearing headgear after another player had been rendered comatose. One of them couldn't get his helmet off for the National Anthem. When the game started, the other player couldn't keep his helmet on. It was treated as a comic flop—people were just making fun of them, and they basically kind of got shot down and acted like, “okay, I'm not going to try that again.”

So this culture developed where the injuries you would get—and a lot of players got really significant injuries—ended up being framed as badges of honor. There was literally a saying that “you're not a hockey player unless you've lost some teeth.” Which is not a minor injury—dental health is important! So you have missing teeth, broken noses, scars, and in more drastic scenarios, players who lost vision in an eye or lost an entire eye if a puck struck them. 

Now, losing an eye was no longer considered heroic, because that would then impede your ability to play. But anything short of that was sort of like, “you're a tough hockey guy.” And you're a coward if you try to protect yourself.

What’s the connective cultural tissue from a generic sense of toughness to a sense that we’re specifically not wearing protective gear because we’re men?

The answer lies in what it meant to be a man, culturally, when when hockey, football, rugby, and other high contact or collision sports were developing. It meant playing through pain and not displaying emotion or crying or being upset about it. That was part of the conceptualization of what distinguished you as a man from what it meant to be a woman.

I should be more specific here and add that this was what it meant to be a heterosexual man—a lot of the language in sports was that, otherwise, you were a pussy, which is gendered language, in terms of being a woman, or you were a sissy, a gay man.

Why were the head and the face singled out as a place for athletes to display this kind of outward manliness? I mean, these guys were wearing protective gear on other parts of their bodies. They weren't just skating around in T-shirts and shorts. Why was it manly to not wear a face mask or helmet, but okay to wear pads and a cup?

Your face is sort of your individual identifier—much more so than an arm or a leg, or basically any other body part that's covered up by padding. So if you’re constructing this image of the individual hero, the individual risk taker, it's your face that you want associated with that image.

There also was a sportswriter back then who basically said, “well, the female fans like to see the men's faces, so you can't have them hiding their faces by putting on masks.” I found that fascinating—it’s sort of a sexualized thing where the players, as heterosexual males, are doing this for the female fans.

[Laughs]. Even as I try to explain this, it still seems kind of ludicrous to me!

Did players back then given any sports performance reasons for not wearing masks? Like, “I’m a goalie and I can’t wear a mask because it will make me worse at stopping the puck?” Reasons that had nothing to do with masculinity?

There were definitely reasons along the lines of, “you know, I won't be able to see the puck as well while I'm wearing the mask.” Players complained that masks were uncomfortable or that they were sweaty.

One goaltender comes to mind, Gump Worsley. He was a notorious mask holdout, even after other players started adopting masks in the mid-1960s. He said that “my face is my mask.” So there was this sense of bravado, this bragging that “I'm a true hockey player,” mixed with rationalizations and anxieties that maybe the mask will make me a worse player. 

I think that's why it took somebody like Plante to ultimately get the masks adopted. He was one of the best goaltenders of his day. Even though he got a ton of pushback, the reason his coach ultimately said, “fine, you can wear it” was that he still stopped plenty of shots—and his team was still successful. Because he was such a role model, and looked up to in terms of his performance, he enabled other players to very gradually say, “well, he can wear it. It's okay for me.”

If Plante had been an average goalie, I think he might have succumbed to the ridicule and ultimately stopped wearing the mask, as past players had done. 

Before and during Plante’s NHL career, something was changing in hockey: more and more kids were starting to play, which means there were more families you could sell equipment to. How did the desire by sports goods companies to sell hockey helmets—and the ads they produced to sell hockey helmets—contribute to the acceptance of helmets within youth hockey culture?

That was huge. The sporting goods manufacturers, obviously, are seeing seeing this as a huge business opportunity. There are way more kids who play hockey then would ever make it into the NHL—orders of magnitude. That’s a larger market. And you can make the safety argument for kids in a different way, because it’s the parents who are the decision makers.

So what you see in hockey magazines and other places from that time is that the manufacturers would be placing their ads with a representation of equipment as, like, modernized and sort of sophisticated, what you needed to have organized hockey for kids. Helmets and pads and uniforms where the things that made you part of an advanced youth team, and not just some sort of motley crew on a frozen pond or behind somebody's house.

But what the manufacturers had to get over to make that argument was this culture of associating masks and helmets with cowardice. A lot of ads addressed this implicitly, but I found one ad that was especially fascinating because it addressed it explicitly:

This ad was targeted at kids. And what they say is, “you know, today's hockey player hasn't gone soft. He's just a little smarter than he was years ago.” And also, “the big sissies think it’s just great,” which is referring to NHL players.

The interesting thing is that at the time, not that many quote-unquote big sissies other than Plante and a handful of others were actually wearing helmets or masks. They were still the exception. So the manufacturers were creating a narrative that the professionals were wearing this equipment, trying to reassure the kids seeing these ads that this is part of what it means to be a hockey player, even though you’re not actually seeing this mask or helmet on TV.

Do you remember in the 1990s when soap companies decided that men—who had been using bar soap for decades—would probably be good customers for body wash as well? And their approach was, like, “well, we have to go get football players and put them in ads for our body wash,” and the body wash had to come in slate grey plastic bottles, and the football players had to point out how they were strong, manly men and not at all feminine?

I don’t remember! But it sounds very similar to the hockey situation.

It was a thing! And I remember laughing at those ads, thinking to myself, “put it in a black bottle, have Craig Heyward be in the commercial, whatever, it’s just liquid soap!”

Are you familiar with Gerry Cheevers? 

Refresh my memory.

He was a goaltender. He had stitches painted on his mask where the puck would have hit him in his face had he not been wearing it. He was representing that this was the mask of a tough guy—that “here are the shots I have sustained.”

After that, you get players decorating their masks with monsters and all kinds of tough guy images. And I think that had to happen—the goalies had to personalize and reconfigure their masks in a way that would make them seem tough. It’s similar to what you saw with the body wash. They have to be designed and marketed in this tough guy way for social and cultural acceptance, so that they’re not associated with cowardice. They have to become consistent with whatever narrative of masculinity is predominant. Even today in the NHL, pretty much all the goaltenders have, like, snarling animals or things like that on their masks. 

Looking at hockey history and the acceptance of masks for goalies, then helmets for players, and then visors for the non-goalie players, did other factors contribute beyond this sort of cultural re-contextualization through advertising?

The consumer safety movement was part of this as well, just in terms of a broader historical context. In the United States, that started largely with cars, with the National Highway Traffic Safety Act and adding seatbelts. Then you have the creation of the Consumer Product Safety Commission to address other risky products. 

A lot of that was about protecting kids—child safety seats, childproof caps on medication bottles, all of that was happening in the 1960s and 1970s. You saw a lot of advocacy from parents and teachers and other concerned people who broadly created a movement that was focused on increased safety across the board in terms of various consumer products.

You mention protecting kids. In 1965, the death of an Ontario hockey player from a head injury lead Canada to make helmets mandatory for all players under 18 years of age—but not adult players. 

Meanwhile, through the 1970s all the way to 1997—when Craig McTavish retired as the last NHL player to not wear a helmet—you saw this same reluctance to mandate helmets for adult players. Similarly, the NHL didn’t mandate proactive visors until 2013.

Why were adults considered different than children for so, so long when it comes to head protection?

I think there’s this really, really deep libertarian strain of thought—obviously in the United States, but also in hockey in Canada—which basically puts forth that you can’t limit the sort of risks that a theoretical fully-informed adult can take. 

I keep thinking about motorcycle helmet laws in the U.S. The science is incredibly good—motorcycle helmets are incredibly effective at preventing injury and death! And following the National Highway Safety Act in the 1960s, a ton of states passed laws to require motorcycle helmets in order to get federal funding. Yet there was so much pushback from the American Motorcycle Association against those laws that something like half the states repealed them. 

Today, I think in about half of all U.S. states, adults can ride their motorcycles without helmets. But if you’re a kid, you have to wear one. The thinking is, “well, once you're over 18, it's your brain, you can do what you want, and the state has no right to limit you.”

Of course, the context is quite different when it comes to sports—professional leagues are private entities, and those leagues mandating helmets or visors is not the the same thing as the government limiting your freedoms in a certain sense. But I think the narratives are very similar. The essence of what it means to be a professional hockey player, our narrative around it, what we’re celebrating about you as an athlete—and excited to see— is that you’re taking risks.

That culture was so powerful, I think, that even players who wore helmets for years in youth leagues might discard them at the professional level unless they were mandated to wear them.

Let’s talk about the parallels between hockey history and what we’re seeing right now with the coronavirus pandemic and face mask wearing. I want to read you something written by Amanda Hess of the New York Times:

To its critics, [mask-wearing] is a sign of weakness, emasculation and deceit. Most Americans accept the medical benefits of masks, but the ones who do not are, more often than not, Republican and male. Their rhetoric dovetails with racist ideas about Asian cultures, where wearing a mask in public has long been normalized. And it improvises on decades of work on the right to stitch the words “effete” and “liberal” together, painting a whole swath of the political spectrum as a feminine affectation.

Among their ranks is R.R. Reno, the editor of the conservative religious journal First Things (“Masks = enforced cowardice,” he wrote in a Twitter rant about the mask “regime”), and Donald Trump. (“Somehow, I don’t see it for myself,” he said, even as he announced the C.D.C. guideline urging people to wear masks in public.) Last month, as a maskless Trump toured an Arizona mask factory, his supporters heckled the masked reporter BrieAnna J. Frank outside. “It’s submission, it’s muzzling yourself, it looks weak — especially for men,” one man told her.

In what ways does this echo everything we’ve been discussing? 

That's an amazing passage. The critics of masks today, saying it’s a sign of weakness, emasculation, and deceit, I think all of that was evident in the heckling of Plante and other players who wore masks.

The through line I see is an idea that if you are covering your face and are a man in a position where you're sort of expected to represent your town or community—or if you're President Trump and representing the entire country—that community is expecting you to portray a certain image of masculinity. And you’re betraying that expectation by wearing a mask.

Is that where the idea of “deceit” comes from? Because that word left me baffled.

I can imagine that’s what Trump or the conservative editor or these other figures are getting at when they refuse wear a mask. They would consider it undermining their positions.

Let’s talk about ridicule. Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert was the first NBA player and first high-profile American athlete to test positive for the coronavirus—and his test not only shut down the league, but was a watershed moment for shutting down sports and the country in general to try to slow the spread of the virus. 

A few days before his positive test, however, he infamously mocked the idea of social distancing by theatrically rubbing his hands on a bunch of reporters’ microphones.

Whether it’s mask wearing in hockey or for coronavirus, why do we see people not only rejecting protection, but actively mocking it?

I think that the enforcement of cultural norms is the root of where that's coming from. It’s a response to a perceived threat. Wearing a mask—in hockey or in our current coronavirus context—is seen as a threat to particular understanding of the world. I hope this doesn’t sound too grandiose, but Plante, by wearing his face mask, was in a way threatening the widespread image of what a hockey player was at that time. And I think the ridicule he receive was an effort to enforce that culture and respond to that threat. It’s the notion that we have to shut this down.

The debate over coronavirus face mask wearing has become explicitly politicized. You’ve looked at hockey, and you’ve also written a book on the history of safety debates in youth tackle football. Were those debates ever politicized?

Along with our broader polarization on all kinds of issues, we do see politicization of football’s risks today. Public opinion data shows that more conservative-leaning people or more conservative leaning areas of the country are more inclined to think that the risks of the sport manageable or are worth it for youth, whereas in in bluer states like New York and New Jersey, we see a much bigger decline in participation numbers.

You know, football been politicized in the past as well. The sport kind of got wrapped up in the debates of the 1960s—college football coaches, in particular, were associated with Republican or right-leaning politics, and football started to be portrayed as sport of traditional American values, as compared to the hippies or the beatniks in the streets.

One thing I can say about hockey—and it struck me when you read that Amanda Hess passage about how anti-coronavirus mask rhetoric dovetailed with racist ideas about Asians—is that there has been this perception of Canadian and North American hockey as having a gloves-off, rock ‘em, sock ‘em, high risk-taking style and being seen as much tougher than European hockey. Commentators like Don Cherry very much celebrated this, and characterized Swedish and Russian hockey as feminine. So nationalistic and other narratives can and do get wrapped up in ideas about risk.

Let's go back to gender. Hess also notes in her piece that “a study of American attitudes toward masks found that men are less likely to believe they will be ‘seriously affected by the coronavirus,’ though the opposite is true.” If hockey had been a predominantly female sport, would it have taken multiple decades to mandate helmet and protective face mask wearing?

[Laughs]. Oh man, that's a great question. Bizarrely, the sport I have in mind for an answer is almost the opposite storyline. Lacrosse. In boys’ lacrosse, they require helmets. They allow a lot more contact. Girls’ lacrosse does not have helmets.

The narrative has always been that the boys’ game is way tougher, whereas the girls’ game is officially non-contract, more quote-unquote ladylike, and therefore doesn’t require the same equipment. There’s a huge debate over whether helmets should be added. And one of the big arguments from girls’ and women’s coaches is, “well, we don’t want to become like the boys’ game. We want to preserve our version of the sport.”

What are they trying to preserve? It is simply a different style of play? Or is it cultural idea of femininity, a contrast to the idea of masculinity within the sport?

Both, I think. Girls’ lacrosse has a genuinely different style of play and its own particular sporting identity. But I think part of that identity is a gendered one. What’s fascinating to me is how masks and helmets in one sport can come to represent masculinity, and then in another—hockey—were associated with femininity and weakness. 

I can very much imagine an alternate history where, if hockey had originated as a girls’ and women's sport, there could have been an alternate and paternalistic narrative one where masks and helmets had been insisted on as necessary. My mother is Canadian. She played street hockey as a little girl. And she was told she needed to stop because girls couldn't lose their teeth. It was seen as incredibly un-ladylike to have a scar on your face. So even the idea of what injuries are acceptable, and for whom, is also an incredibly gendered one!

And part of why little girls were kept from hockey in the time period where there were no masks, or helmets that were worn is that it was seen as incredibly unladylike to have, you know, a scar on your face or to have lost a tooth. And so you couldn't play a sport that would put you at risk for something like that.

The chief health officer in Orange County, Calif. recently resigned after facing backlash over her countywide order to wear masks in public in response to the coronavirus pandemic—an order that left her facing threats and protests at her home. Did anyone get pushed out of hockey because of advocating or wearing protective masks or helmets?

Not that I know of. There wasn't a pushback at that level. One thing I found really striking was the story of Bill Masterton’s death—he died of a brain injury because his head hit the ice and he wasn't wearing a helmet. That prompted this huge conversation over whether hockey players should wear helmets or not. There were coaches, and I think, even the president of the NHL, who basically said, “you know, this is just a normal hazard of our business.”

You teach public health. Let's say that you're the health commissioner in Orange County. It's your job to convince people to wear masks to slow coronavirus spread, even the people who think they're “enforced cowardice.” Does hockey history have any lessons for how to persuade people?

One lesson from Plante’s story is that you need your heroes involved. Especially given how politicized this is with right-wing leaning people, you need their leaders involved, be they politicians or news figures. 

Going back to the body wash you talked about, you might want your quote-unquote masculine heroes, your football and hockey players, to be publicly wearing masks. If the only people you see wearing masks are us feminized public health people, that is not going to convince people who are inclined to see masks as something feminine and threatening to masculine identity. I also could imagine sports heroes coming out and saying, “I’m choosing to wear a mask to protect the people around me,” reframing it as a kind of masculine protective act.

And maybe you need a way to create tough kinds of mask designs, like in hockey. Or ways to use the mask to show your affiliation with your favorite sports team. Provide an opportunity for masks to be customized in a way that is consistent with whatever people’s identities are. 

Another lesson from hockey is that you need both the bottom up and the top down. There needed to be a push from the players themselves, the people directly involved in the sport. And there needed to be a mandate from above. The first makes the second more palatable. In the late 1960s, after Bill Masterson’s death, there was a sportswriter who said that there were basically three camps of hockey players at the time: those who are wearing the masks right now, those who absolutely refuse to wear them, and the majority of players who currently aren't wearing masks, but would do so if they were mandated—because then it wouldn’t be seen as a choice they were making.

Before we wrap up, I want to ask you about an op-ed piece in the New York Times written by University of Notre Dame’s president John Jenkins titled “We’re Reopening Notre Dame. It’s Worth the Risk.”

In the piece, he discusses—and morally justifies—how his school currently plans to return students to campus for the fall semester and have its football team play games, possibly with some fans in the stands.

Acknowledging that this is going to create coronavirus risk, Jenkins writes:

“We are in our society regularly willing to take on ourselves or impose on others risks — even lethal risks — for the good of society. We send off young men and women to war to defend the security of our nation knowing that many will not return. We applaud medical professionals who risk their health to provide care to the sick and suffering. We each accept the risk of a fatal traffic accident when we get in our car.”

As a public health scholar who also works on a college campus, what do you make of this?

I find it incredibly concerning to see a college president compare students to soldiers or to medical professionals. But it’s consistent with our long history of glorification of risk taking in sports. It’s also consistent with the entire history of football. Football players have been likened to soldiers, and expected to take risks and potentially sacrifice their bodies for for the good of the game. 

America as a whole has accepted that idea of risk for college players—and as I read what Jenkins wrote, I see this idea being extended to the entire student body, that part of your education or experience at college might involve risking your health.

But this is an infectious disease. And what’s even more disturbing is that the risk you’re talking about is not just to you. It’s not just the students taking the risks. It’s not even just the students, faculty, and staff. It’s the families of those people, their co-workers, everyone in the community around the campus. 

In a very real sense, our fates are all tied together by this virus. So the question is, is he saying we all have to take this risk together, even lethal risks, for the goal of bringing people back to campus in person? A college president is someone who, I would imagine, ought to be tasked with prioritizing the health and welfare of the members of the campus community and the community around the campus. I think it’s a false dichotomy to argue that there are two choices—no education, or everyone’s back at Notre Dame.

I think John Jenkins sounds like someone who probably needs to take a puck to the face five times before he decides to wear a mask.

It’s not so much the college president taking the puck to the face—it’s the expectation that everyone else, faculty and staff, will take a puck to the face that brings this to another level!

Drawing on your book, do you see any parallels between the notion that brain trauma risk in football can be successfully managed with the right equipment and rules, and the idea that colleges can bring students back this fall with the right coronavirus protocols?

Yes. From my perspective, there’s a sort of misguided idea that these risks can simply be managed with the right supervision—if you just have the right coaching, the right tackling technique when it comes to concussions, or in the case of COVID-19, if you just have temperature checks, extra hand-washing stations, hand sanitizer, whatever. If we just put this kind of management or supervision into place, then we can manage this very severe public health risk to a point where it's acceptable for our students and faculty and staff. 

In both cases, I think we're underestimating how challenging these risks are to deal with. In the case of concussion, human brains are incredibly complicated—and they're also pretty vulnerable to repeated collisions. It’s pretty hard to set up a system where you can have repeated collisions and not have that be a risk to the brain.

Meanwhile, the coronavirus is a novel virus. It has only been around for a couple months. We've already had over 100,000 Americans die from this virus, and that's with significant social distancing and school closures. I think it's going to be very challenging to set up a management system on a college campus that can effectively reduce that risk, especially when you have people coming from across the country to all be in this particular indoor space together. There's a certain hubris in the idea that you can manage it.


This has been Hreal Sports, a weekly-ish newsletter written by Patrick Hruby about sports things that don’t stick to sports. If you have any questions or feedback, contact me at my website, www.patrickhruby.net. And if you enjoyed this, please sign up and share with your friends.