Brown University recently became the first NCAA Division I women’s lacrosse program to require helmets for all players this fall, which led to plenty of figurative headshaking. After all, the debate over their effectiveness has raged for years, and not everyone believes helmets are the answer to increasing concerns about player concussions.
As the women’s sports news site ExcelleSports.com reports: “In men’s lacrosse — which is a much more physical game — athletes are required to wear shoulder pads, elbow pads, protective gloves, mouth guards and helmets with face masks. Women have only been required to wear protective goggles and mouthpieces with the option of wearing helmets — except for the goalies, who always have to wear more head protection.”
The Associated Press recently referenced data from the Consumer Product Safety Commission ranking lacrosse (both genders) No. 13 in terms of sports injuries that required trips to the emergency room for athletes between the ages of 13-17. Between 2002 and 2014, there were an average of 5,830 such injuries each year, and the most common injury was to the head — although females comprised just more than a quarter of all injured players.
The Florida High School Athletic Association’s groundbreaking decision in 2014 to make protective soft headgear mandatory for girls’ lacrosse players takes effect in spring 2018. And not everyone is happy about it.
“I think it’s an abomination of what this sport is and how it’s meant to be played. It’s a Band-Aid — and doesn’t look at the issue,” Beth Donovan, girls’ lacrosse coach at Cardinal Newman High School in West Palm Beach, told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in July, adding that better education of coaches and officials would more effectively help prevent injuries. “We have a sport growing faster [in Florida] than the number of knowledgeable coaches viable for the [proper coaching of] it. We have well-intentioned people who want to help the sport grow, but they don’t know how to properly teach players how to check. With officials, there needs to be more education for checking and how we can hold players accountable during the game.”
To that end, US Lacrosse and the National Federation of State High School Associations announced in August 2018 rule changes and points of emphasis for youth and high school girls’ lacrosse that focus on making the game safer. US Lacrosse, however, still does not require helmet use for female players.
This past spring, female lacrosse players for high schools on Long Island in New York were given the option to wear standardized lacrosse-specific helmets, but most coaches left the decision to actually don them up to the individual players, according to Newsday.com. That said, at least seven school made helmets mandatory.
“You’re talking about a culture change,” Mount Sinai High School coach Al Bertolone told the newspaper. “We have some kids that like them, some kids that hate them, a lot of kids on the fence in between.”
“I’m not a big proponent of it for a couple of reasons,” added West Islip High School coach Joe Nicolosi. “I feel like it will make the games more aggressive. With girls wearing headgear, I feel like the girls are going to be more influenced to maybe swing their sticks because they feel like the girls are more protected: If I’m guarding someone wearing a helmet, maybe I’ll take a shot at them. If I hit their head it’s no big deal.”
A 2014 study by — you guessed it, researchers at Brown University — revealed that lacrosse stick whacks delivered to dummy headforms by females players between the age of 12 and 14 hit with about three times more force than the impact of two football players butting helmets to celebrate a big play.
But even the lead researcher of that study — Joseph Crisco, the Henry Frederick Lippitt Professor of Orthopaedic Research in the Alpert Medical School of Brown University and a researcher at Rhode Island Hospital — says helmets aren’t a panacea. Little data connects accelerations of a blow to concussion risk, and individual susceptibility varies widely, he said when his study was released. “The goal of our study was to answer the question of what types of head accelerations would you see if you were hit in the head with a stick,” said Crisco, a former girls’ lacrosse coach.