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  • Eye Injuries Cost the NBA $2.4 Million in Single Season

    Reviewed By Michael T. Yen, MD, and Rod Foroozan, MD
    Published Mar. 16, 2021

    Basketball remains the leading cause of sports-related eye injuries in the United States. But getting athletes of any age or skill level to wear protective eyewear is a tough sell.

    Eye experts push for sports eye protection

    Ophthalmologists hear all the reasons for not wearing eye protection, even after a player suffers a significant injury, such as fractures to the bones around the eye socket. Eye protection is cumbersome, they fear it will impair their peripheral vision or that fog or sweat will accumulate on lenses and cloud their vision. Even though sports goggles have vastly improved over the years, their appeal has not caught on.

    Maybe an appeal to the NBA’s bottom line might get their attention? If that’s the case, then a study from two ophthalmologists from Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, Michael T. Yen, MD, and Rod Foroozan, MD, may stimulate a conversation.

    Calculating the cost of basketball eye injuries

    Drs. Yen and Foroozan, both team physicians for the Houston Rockets, tracked injury information daily across all 1,230 games of the 2018–2019 NBA regular season. They corroborated the information using press releases and news reports. To get a complete accounting of the injury, game film of each eye injury was analyzed through the NBA’s online, League Pass broadcast subscription.

    Though gruesome eye injuries have occurred over the years – eyes dislodged, torn retinas and fractures – the injuries sustained in this single-season snapshot were relatively mild. Fourteen eye injuries were recorded, mostly corneal abrasions, which can cause pain and blurred vision. Bottomline, the eye injuries sustained during the 2018-2019 season cost $2.4 million in lost productivity based on the salaries of the players injured. 

    Collectively, the injured players missed 18 games. Based on the player’s individual win/loss percentage, their absence resulted in an average of one lost win. Dr. Yen admits that one lost win may not sound significant, but he notes that making the playoffs sometimes comes down to a difference of just one or two games. However, this study did not include playoff revenue, which can gross more than $100 million.

    Why athletes reject eye protection

    Dr. Foroozan says his patients are reluctant to wear eye protection, even while they’re recovering from a significant eye injury. “They can’t wait to get rid of it,” Dr. Foroozan said. “They are such creatures of habit. It’s part of what has made them an elite athlete: consistent practice and repetition for years. Anything that varies from the consistency sets them off.”

    Dr. Yen is strategizing for the future. “Hockey players in the 60s and 70s never wore helmets or masks, but they all wear eye protection now. The shift occurred after it was mandated that all kids, starting at the youngest ages had to wear face masks. It took years for it to filter up, but they all wear protective gear now.”

    Protective eyewear can save vision

    The right protective eyewear is the best defense against eye injury, whether you’re a high school player or an NBA star. Protective eyewear made with polycarbonate lenses is the best choice for basketball players, as well as for those who play racquet sports, soccer and field hockey.

    All athletes should wear sports eye protection that meets requirements set by appropriate organizations. Athletes who wear contacts or glasses should also wear appropriate protective eyewear. Contacts offer no protection and glasses do not provide enough defense.