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Sports Spotlight: Mask safety for athletes

Doctors on PIAA Sports Medicine Advisory Committee say masks are safe and necessary.

PENNSYLVANIA, USA — It looks strange and for a lot of parents, players, coaches and even some league administrators, it appears potentially dangerous to have high school athletes wearing masks while they are giving maximum efforts in a basketball game or wrestling match.  

FOX43's Andrew Kalista and I had the opportunity to speak with two doctors from Penn State Health that are part of the PIAA's Sports Medicine Advisory Committee.  They are Director of Orthopedic Sports Medicine Dr. Scott Lynch and Chief, Division of Primary Care Sports Medicine Dr. Matthew Silvis.

The first answer is for a short and direct question, are they safe? 

“There was a study looking at carbon dioxide measures and other oxygen levels with mask wearing and it didn’t really make any difference with or without exercise," explained Dr. Lynch.  "Maybe if you are wearing an n95 mask or something like that instead of a typical mask, but in terms of exertion and oxygenation, that doesn’t seem to be an issue."

Dr. Lynch admits you may not feel good wearing the mask but it’s a very low risk of having anything bad happen when it comes to oxygenation.  It’s a learning process for everyone involved.  

“We haven’t been here before," stated Dr. Silvis. "We’ve never instituted mask usage for sports like this.  The reality is people seem to be adjusting, it’s one of those week by week, we learn more about COVID-19, and we’re learning more about what you can do in sport and what you can’t do in sport.” 

The next question is about how necessary the masks are for competition.  If the athletes, coaches and other team personnel are doing temperature checks when they check in, they’re wearing the masks in school, they’re wearing the masks even in practices, why is this step necessary for athletes to be wearing the masks as they are giving maximum effort in competitions? 

“From my perspective, it’s asymptomatic spread," responded Dr. Silvis. "To have a fever, to have symptoms of COVID, our screening process for kids as they arrive to school and from coaches and officials, it’s a great process.  It’s going to pick up kids that are symptomatic and adults that are symptomatic with COVID-19, but there’s a large percent of individuals who have this virus, who spread it unknowingly because they’re completely asymptomatic or they are pre-symptomatic.  They just haven’t developed symptoms yet and they ultimately will and that puts other people at risk.” 

Wrestling definitely creates a unique challenge for mask wearing.  Dr. Lynch is a former national champion at Penn State.  Again, he says not ideal but not dangerous. 

“For me, it always comes down to risk benefit ratio, I don’t think there is a problem and trying to oxygenate while wrestling.  Again, will it make you frustrated and tired when you have a mask on, yes.  I think for me where it’s going to be really hard to wear is keeping it in place.” 


Dr. Silvis added “I think that’s where some of the other initiatives around the sport of wrestling will hopefully be beneficial.  That’s just limiting the number of sparring partners you have at practice and try to bubble these kids based on their weight class.  Decrease the number of competitors when it comes to competitions per weight class to try and minimize exposure to other athletes as best we can.” 

The doctors say a double layer mask offers maximum protection.  Traditional neck gaiters are one layer but there are ones being made with double layers.  As things progress, we might end up with masks tailored to each sport.  The PIAA Sports Medicine Advisory Committee stay in touch about best practices to provide the best possible advice and recommendation to the PIAA, they do not make decisions about high school sports.  For anyone opposed to the idea of athletes wearing masks, the alternative is not a great option either. 

"The silver lining in all of this is that we are trying," reminded Dr. Silvis. "We’re trying to have indoor sports, winter sports during this pandemic.  There is a lot of effort to try and make this attempt work and keep people safe.  A far easier solution would have been to just go no winter sports, there is no wrestling this year. Give them a chance, don’t presume the mask is going to cause a problem."

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