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Head Games: Helmets Still an Unanswered Question in Women’s Lacrosse

21 Apr, 2015

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

Impact sensors in football helmets. In mouthguards. On the sidelines. All of it designed to guard against traumatic brain injury and the problems it can cause athletes down the line.

And still, the debate about use of helmets in women’s lacrosse rages on.

In the year following the Florida High School Athletic Association’s groundbreaking vote to make protective soft headgear mandatory for girls lacrosse players, reaction among local coaches and players remains mixed.

According to a news article in the Palm Beach Post, coaches and referees are saying play has gotten, if anything, more aggressive since the helmet rule went into effect.

“I am strongly against the helmets,” Pope John Paul girls lacrosse coach Jeff Atkins said. “I have seen a rise in yellow cards due to checks to the head and offensive players forcing through sticks because they have headgear on. Defensive players are much more aggressive with their sticks this season. It’s the worst I’ve seen in five years, which I believe is due to the helmet.”

Other coaches, however, noted the game is by nature fast and physical, and that they believe its change has been a natural evolution rather than something equipment-related.

The FHSAA made headgear mandatory last summer — becoming the first state high school association in the country to do so — in an effort to protect against concussions and head injuries. Previously, goggles were the only protective headgear girls lacrosse players were required to wear. (Boys lacrosse players have long been required to wear hard, protective headgear during competition; lacrosse is the only female team sport that is played by different rules from that of boys).

When the FHSAA’s mandate came down, US Lacrosse (the national governing body for lacrosse) issued a statement that said in part: “It is simply irresponsible to enact rule mandates requiring head protection in women’s lacrosse without a clear understanding of the mechanisms of head injury in a version of the sport that is entirely different from its male counterpart.”

The going theory, for a number of years at least, was that women’s lacrosse was the more elegant form of the sport, relying on strategy rather than aggression, and that therefore, helmets (as well as padding and other protective gear) were unnecessary.

But some coaches, having seen increasingly rough play on the field, are taking matters into their own hands. In Baltimore, Maryland, WBAL-TV News noted, a high school girl sustained a serious concussion on the field of play, and after a lengthy and difficult recovery that took her out of school and off the team for several months, her parents insisted, as a condition of her return to lacrosse, that she wear head protection. The coach agreed, and made it mandatory for all players on the team. (The equipment is listed as optional under U.S. Lacrosse rules since it has not established a standard for such headgear). However, it is worth noting that the soft helmets currently being worn by the women in the one Baltimore school, are only able to guard against contusions, rather than concussions.

Other states are taking note, but are resistant to any changes that would mandate helmets, pads or other gear. In Wisconsin, for example, players on the women’s team at UW-Eau Claire told media they were worried helmets would restrict the vision of athletes – as well as increase the aggression factor.

In addition, some coaches – particularly those in Florida – say helmet technology has yet to catch up with female wearers, and that current equipment has to be tightened to the point of causing headaches among players, lest it fall off.

In Florida, a petition to remove the helmet rule garnered more than 3,500 signatures, but FHSAA officials say they have no intention of backtracking. In fact, they add, parents and others have been largely supportive of the measure.

In Baltimore (where lacrosse might just as well be the state sport rather than jousting—yeah, really), officials did try to introduce a measure about helmets in women’s lacrosse in public schools and rec leagues, and were promptly shouted down.

The game – and the rules – remain a work in progress. As women’s sports as a whole become ever more aggressive, and athletes become more determined to push the envelope, expect lacrosse to evolve and the discussion of contact – even unintentional – to be brought up repeatedly. Whether this leads to a mandate for helmets may depend upon the enforcement of the rules, says Jupiter, Florida, co-head coach Claire Poza.

 “I think as coaches, it is our responsibility to teach the players proper and safe defensive contact, checking and shooting, as opposed to just relying on a helmet to keep the kids safe,” she said.

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