Girls Lacrosse Helmets – A Summary Of The Controversy

Bullis High School Girls Lacrosse

Photo By Deborah Kolt – deborahkolt.photoshelter.com

Updated September 6th, 2015 
We have been hearing from a lot of high school coaches in Florida about this story and have received several comments which were added to the footer of this story.

It has been a little over a year since the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) ruling requiring the use of helmets in High School Girls Lacrosse was instituted.  This ruling has caused a ripple effect of controversy throughout the country and many feel that this is the start of what will be a wave of similar rulings in other states.

If this is the first you are hearing of this, I’d like to know what helmet you just crawled out from under.  But seriously, it is a confusing topic to follow and we wanted to get you well-informed on the subject.  When you overhear the “helmet discussion” on the sidelines you’ll be in the top percent “in the know.”

History of Helmets in Girls Lacrosse

While Florida is the center of the universe right now when it comes to this topic, this debate did not grow its roots in the sunshine state.  In 2011, Bullis High School in Potomac, MD decided to require its girls team to wear helmets starting with the 2012 season making them the first team in the nation to do so.

The move was in response to a number of head injuries suffered on their team in previous years.  The interesting thing about the decision Bullis High School made was that it was made independent of any outside suggestion or mandate.  As you will read in this article, this action of doing things on your own, that is to say without the recommendation of a governing body, is more the norm than you may think.

A Timeline of Helmets and Protective Equipment In Girls Lacrosse

Analyzing issues like this is really about getting a grasp of  the big picture.  As you will see below, US Lacrosse has shown a rapid rise in protective measures in the game but has not touched the helmet aspect yet.

A Timeline of the Increase in Protective Equipment by US Lacrosse Throughout History
  • 1913-2004: Girl + Stick + Ball = Game
  • 2005: Pocket made less deep, goalies must wear NOCSAE helmet and goggles are mandated
  • 2006: Added hard boundaries, goalies must wear padded gloves and made the body/crosse contact rules much clearer.
  • 2007: Goalie must where shin/thigh pads, mouthpiece must fully cover upper jaw teeth and teams must play shorthanded after a 4th card is received.
  • 2008: Rule that you may not lower the head of the stick below the shoulder and initiate contact.
  • 2009: Player/coach ineligible for next game if Red Card is received.
A Timeline of Independent Teams and/or League  Decisions on Helmets in the Game
  • 1986: The Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA) mandates that girls lacrosse players throughout MA must where ice hockey helmets during play.
  • 1996: The MIAA overturns it’s decade-long ruling siting issues that helmets caused more aggressive play in the game however there was also a significant amount of pressure placed on the MIAA due to many girls being overlooked by college recruiters due to the incompatibility of the player’s high school experience to the college game.
  • 2010:New York State Public High School Athletic Association (NYSPHSAA) Safety & Research committee commissions a survey style study to monitor head injuries for the 2011 season.
  • 2011: NYSPHSAA votes down the use of helmets in Girls Lacrosse by a vote of 7-2.
  • 2014: In the last meeting of the 13/14 year, the FHSAA mandates that Girls Lacrosse players must wear protective headgear in the 2015 season.

How Do Head Injuries Occur in Girls Lacrosse?

In doing our research, we viewed findings from two of the leading researchers on head injuries in high school sports.  These two studies are what you will see most when this topic is discussed.  The first is a study published in the American Journal of Medicine where video analysis was done on 529 varsity games spanning 25 schools where the video was used to confirm and analyze the injury’s occurrence.

The second is what we would call the mega database of sports injury known as RIO (Reporting Injury Online) where principal investigator Dawn Comstock oversees the reporting and collection of injury data from 22 high school sports including Girls Lacrosse.  Girls Lacrosse HQ interviewed Dawn for this article and she provided valuable information to better understand the big picture.  To give you perspective on Dawn’s level of expertise and the value and trust of her process and data, she is THE go-to resource for the major high school sport governing bodies when they are looking to make a landmark decision to change their game.   The most recent example was Dawn’s contribution of data to the recent decision on requiring eye-wear in Girls Field Hockey.

Depending on what level of play you are at in your lacrosse career you may have never even seen a head injury occur on the field but that doesn’t mean they do not occur.  Rules in youth lacrosse prohibit any contact so moves that cause injury are whistled for penalty which usually creates a behavior-modifying environment that significantly reduces the chances of contact initiated by an opposing player.

  • Stick-to-Head: while a player is playing defending, she makes an attempt to knock the ball out of the other player’s stick but misses the stick and hits the player in the head with either the shaft or head.  Alternatively while a player is defending a shot, she is hit by the follow-through of a shot.
  • Body-to-Head: This is when a player crashes into another.  This occurs most often when running for a lose ball.
  • Body-to-body: This is when two players collide causing an immediate halt momentum of the body but with the brain freely floating in the skull, it will crash to against the skull causing the injury.
  • Ball-to-Head: When a ball passed or shot strikes another player’s head.

In a study published in the American Journal of Medicine where video analysis was done to confirm and analyze the injury’s occurrence, the rank order was:

  1. Stick-to-head (66%)
  2. Body-to-head (33%)
  3. Ball-to-head (No occurrences recorded during the study)

Some other interesting facts that came out of this study were:

  • 70% of the injuries occurred within the arc.
  • 50% of the actions that caused the injury were not penalized.
  • Most of the actions that caused injury appeared to be unintentional.

Helmets Will RUIN The Game or Helmets Will SAVE The Game?

With something that has received so much attention in our sport, you know that there will be strong opinions on both sides of the argument.  The question that can be asked of both sides that seems to extract the most authentic response is “what are you afraid of?”

The Pro-Helmet Crowd

If you are pro-helmet than your first response is certainly the head injury angle.  If we allow the sport to go on without helmets than eventually we will have an NFL situation on our hands where we are trying to unwind years worth of denial and neglect while grown women suffer the effects of brain injury for the rest of their lives.  If you are on this side of the argument the goals are not only noble but they are crystal clear; throw on a helmet, reduce risk of head injury…safety first, sport second.

You may also be pro-helmet by the simple fact that you are mostly neutral but don’t see the harm in wearing them. This would be the “if you can save just one person from severe injury, it was worth it” opinion.

You may also be generally trusting of the powers that be but are fearful that they are resisting change a little too much and may be putting up the Stop Sign after the car crash occurs.  After all, the last 10 years of the sport have seen huge changes over the previous 90 years so helmets are just a natural next step in the process of making the game safer.

Lastly, if you are in the pro-helmet crowd, you are probably not a player.  From the activity online via Twitter, Blogs, Facebook, Forums and more, the sentiment from players is largely a resounding NO.  If you are going to stick to your guns and argue for helmets, you should make sure you are well-informed about your decision.  If you are a parent driving to the store to buy your daughter a helmet, you may not see a level of resistance that big since the days of being a terrible-two’s-toddler.

The Anti-Helmet Crowd

Bubble Ball

Bubble Ball

If you are against helmets than you probably are with those who want to preserve the sport for what it is and take great care not to make significant changes unless carefully thought out by US Lacrosse.  Status Quo is not just a lazy state for those who don’t care, it represents 101 years of Girls Lacrosse history without helmets.

If you are in the neutral crowd but leaning against helmets than you likely will happily defer to the governing body of the sport assuming that they are doing the proper research to ensure that the game is not getting out of hand with head injuries.

I’m not totally sure where the visceral reaction comes from but one would have to say the primary reason would simply be from the discomfort a new piece of equipment would cause.  One thing that we have seen from what we observed of the anti-helmet crowd on social media discussions is that it largely comes from a place of preserving something you as an athlete are so closely identified with.

There is yet another argument presented by this side and that is that requiring helmets would make the game more aggressive due the new protective equipment.  In sports, this is known as the “Gladiator Affect” where new equipment would cause “less fear of injury” and thus make the sport more aggressive and dangerous.  Comstock points out that this argument is a familiar one and can be traced back to the days of when football helmets became required equipment in the 1930’s.

Why Has This Topic Generated So Much Controversy?

This is something that I’ve been trying to sort out myself and it is one of the main reasons why I set out to write this article.  I still don’t have a clear answer on it but I have a better idea of it.  I think this comes down to an issue of who is driving the bus, US Lacrosse or Leagues/Teams.

By making this ruling, the FHSAA has set a precedent that clearly conveys that US Lacrosse does not own all the decision making power in the sport and I think that makes us all have to stop and think about what else could come.  US Lacrosse did ask the FHSAA to postpone the ruling until 2016 when they estimate that a conclusive study will be completed but that request did not deter the FHSAA from moving forward in the 2015 season.

What about affecting star players’ ability to move in to college lacrosse?  If you are a rockstar player in Florida entering college in 2018 after playing 4 years with a helmet, your recruiting letters may fall on deaf ears.  This story played out once before in Massachusetts in the 80’s and 90’s and was overturned due largely to the fact that girls were not getting recruited regularly.

Turning back to our expert resource Dawn Comstock, we are presented with some sobering facts that make the issue hard to ignore.  While many still hold tight to anti-helmet mantra, you may not have logic on your side.  Take the sport of Mens/Boys Lacrosse.  There are probably few who would debate the need for helmets in the boys game.  Most injuries in the men’s game come from body to body contact where player’s collide and the momentum of your floating brain continues in one direction only to bang against the inside of your skull; kind of like when you forget to put your coffee in the cup holder and then slam on your brakes.

As you can imagine, there is not a thing that a helmet can do to help what is going on inside your skull!  What helmets are particularly effective at are protecting from head injuries caused by objects striking the head; which by the way is the single biggest cause for injury in the girls game.  In other words, a helmet would more effectively prevent head injury in the girls game than in the boys’.

What Does The Future Hold for Helmets in Girls Lacrosse?

At this point, the only thing we can hang on to as a tangible sign as to what will happen is what has transpired in Florida.  Whether or not that ruling stands at the time of the first draw remains to be seen.  We can also deduce from US Lacrosse by their request of the FHSAA to postpone their ruling until 2016 that US Lacrosse must have plans to either release a comprehensive study on the matter or at very least take a stance via the rule book.

Although there is no way to predict the future, we have decades of examples in different sports where this same controversy has played out in exactly the same fashion.  From the first days of football helmets on the gridiron all the way up to field hockey goggles, we have seen this story play out before.  As Dawn Comstock points out, “for every controversy over an equipment change in any sport, you can point to a nearly identical sister-argument in a similar sport.”

Prototype Girls Lacrosse Helmet

Prototype Girls Lacrosse Helmet

What is intriguing is the absence of the big players in the Lacrosse equipment manufacturing world.  Maybe it is the salesperson in me but I couldn’t help but think of how lucrative this could be for helmet manufacturers.  There are over 800 high schools in Florida alone!  Lacrosse is a sport with a small circle of trusted brands and an even smaller circle within them that could handle helmet manufacturing.  I can’t imagine that they would sit around idly and let a Rugby Helmet manufacturer be the first to market in their “bread and butter” sport.

Perhaps the first few years of this new rule will give rise to unknown manufacturers and entrepreneurs like Gary Hanson of Rocky Point, NY who is working on a prototype helmet in his basement.

Those who are proponents of the sport and want to see the growth graphs stay in the upward direction know that uncertainty like this has a significant chance of stunting the growth of the sport which we love and that cannot be a good thing.  Further, we have seen that we all bear a responsibility to at least become more informed about the topic.  As Comstock points out, “the last thing I ever want my research to do is to cause a knee-jerk reaction causing parents to withdraw their children from the sport.”  We do know that other equipment changes in Lacrosse and in other sports have seen a similar pattern of controversy and those sports managed to progress in spite of the changes.

I think we see the growth of the game that we all love as such a positive thing and we don’t want anything to jeopardize it. If helmets do permanently find their way into the sport, we should embrace the change, move on and continue to play, promote, evangelize, become fans, attend games, coach, volunteer, learn and love more than ever.  At least that that is something we can all agree on.

Update and Feedback

Since the release of this article we have been receiving a lot of feedback about the article and we wanted to highlight some feedback we have received right from ground zero.  We had a number of Florida High School coaches reach out to offer feedback.  Here is what they said:

Natalie Clark – Lake Highland Prepatory School in Florida

I feel the helmets are a burden to the girls. It is uncomfortable and most of my girls play year around without them at the club level without issues. While wearing a helmet one might still sustain a concussion so it isn’t getting rid of the problem. It has affected my team in the way that program costs have risen and my girls being annoyed by wearing something that won’t necessarily protect them. Helmets are not the answer for player safety. It is having educated coaches and qualified referees on the field.

Guy Goleman – Former Coach of Cardinal Mooney in Florida

I feel this was a move by politically connected companies to make a profit off of High School sports with out validation from U.S. Lacrosse which is the national governing body.  Once the law passed I was bombarded by companies who wanted to sell me their latest and greatest.  None of which were proven to be effective against concussion.

Claire Poza – Jupiter High School

The first year of helmets in Florida didn’t change lacrosse at all, didn’t make it safer, nor less safe. It seemed to do what the FHSAA wanted, just add an extra $40 min/ player expense to our budgets and pad the wallets of the helmet makers.  I still had a girl get a concussion while wearing her “helmet.

6 Comments

Get Your Head in the Game – The Broken Clipboard 24-03-2016, 17:02

[…] because the pro-helmet crowd is keeping preventing brain injuries as their top priority. They want safety first and sport […]

Reply
Ted 11-12-2016, 14:30

Should be a no-brainer. Why not protect young women from life-altering injury in a *game*?
As for asking participants: How many motorcycle riders oppose wearing helmets? Who pays for their care after a brain injury caused by the exercise of their “freedom?”
Where multiple participants are running around a field and swinging sticks, players should be required to wear helmets.
Which league official wants to explain to the parents of a comatose daughter why she shouldn’t have been wearing a helmet?
Maybe the leadership of the league needs to be changed.

Reply
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