The numbers don’t seem to add up.
In 2015, an NCAA tobacco use survey asked more than 1,300 college baseball coaches and umpires whether spit tobacco was a problem for the sport. About 67 percent of coaches said they rarely or never see their players use it, and 71 percent said they don’t believe spit tobacco is a concern for their team.
Meanwhile, in a 2013 substance use survey of student-athletes, 49.6 percent of Division I baseball players, 45.4 percent in Division II and 46.6 percent in Division III said they use spit tobacco.
The disparity suggests a disconnect between what students are doing and what coaches see.
“We’re not allowed to use it on the field, but I see people using it away from the field,” says Brady Bramlett, a junior pitcher for the University of Mississippi and co-chair of the Division I Student-Athlete Advisory Committee. “You usually see guys using it when they are arriving for practice or after we’re leaving the locker room after practice.”
The college baseball community is taking steps to lessen the use of spit tobacco. This year, in the umpiring video the NCAA distributes about new rules and points of emphasis, umpires also received a message about the dangers of spit tobacco and ways to get help.
“It is important for the baseball umpires program to reach out on this issue,” says George Drouches, NCAA national coordinator of umpires. Additionally, he challenged umpires attending rules clinics to seek assistance if they need help quitting spit tobacco.
NCAA rules prohibit any player, coach or umpire from using tobacco products during practices or games. Anyone breaking the rule is ejected from the diamond. In the recent coaches and umpires survey, only 12 percent of respondents said they now use spit tobacco, and another 27 percent said they had used it in their lives but not in the past year. Nearly two-thirds said they had never used it.
Much of the recent awareness about the topic arose from the 2014 death of former San Diego State University baseball coach and Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, who thought the cancer found in his salivary glands was caused by decades of using spit tobacco. However, the medical community doesn’t have firm evidence connecting Gwynn’s use to his cancer.
Another high-profile former major leaguer, Curt Schilling, was diagnosed with mouth cancer in 2014. Schilling, who is an analyst for ESPN, also believes his illness was caused by years of using spit tobacco. “I can tell you stories of umpires that I know who have chewed and what it has done to their gums and teeth,” Drouches says. “Spit tobacco is in the culture of the sport. It has the feeling of being a rite of passage.”
Emphasizing the dangers of spit tobacco to current student-athletes is its own challenge, particularly if – as the numbers suggest – coaches aren’t aware of the problem.
“When I talked to the umpires at our rules clinics, the feedback I got was that it gave them a wakeup call about what they are doing in regards to spit tobacco,” Drouches says. “This is no different from using alcohol, speeding or gambling, or any other addiction. This is a wellness issue for our umpires.”