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Japan football leagues gear up with shields

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TOKYO >> While the Big Ten and Pac-12, two major U.S. college football conferences, have canceled their fall seasons due to the pandemic, Japanese leagues are preparing to start their seasons — some with additional gear.

The X League, Japan’s top football league, is scheduled to start its shortened season Oct. 24, while the Kansai Collegiate American Football League announced its 2020 season will run in a tournament-style format in mid-October.

The most important challenge for these leagues is to play the game in a way that protects players and staff from the coronavirus. To lower the risk of infection, some leagues are moving toward faceguards with shields.

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

That was when Dr. Hiroto Fujiya of St. Marianna University School of Medicine conducted an experiment to test the effectiveness of shields.

Fujiya, a board member of the National Football Association, outfitted four helmets, with no shield on the faceguard, eye shield on faceguard, mouth shield on faceguard and face shield on faceguard.

He sprayed gas from the inside of the helmet to show how it passed through the faceguard and concluded that helmets with mouth and face shields prevent droplet infection.

“Mouth and face shields surely are more effective than not wearing anything,” Fujiya said.

He warned, however, that shields add to the risk of heatstroke, with face shields posing the highest risk.

“I strongly recommend taking good measures to prevent heatstroke and wearing a mouth shield to prevent droplet infection,” he said.

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

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

“We have been working on developing a shield to prevent droplet infection since March and have sold 5,000 Spitshields,” said a QB Club spokesperson. “The shield should be strong enough to not break from contact and is made of material that won’t cut (players).”

He added that the company has produced four shields with different shapes to fit into any helmet or faceguard.

While players aren’t accustomed to playing with the additional equipment, it could become a new normal this football season, at least in Japan.

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