There has been increased discussion about the relative safety in girls’ lacrosse these days, particularly with respect to head and face injury. ESPN aired a piece in August that focused on two girls’ high school players in Pittsburgh who had suffered concussions while playing…and Section 8 of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association introduced a proposal to require all players to wear men’s lacrosse helmets beginning in 2012. The measure was rejected by a 7-2 vote of the association’s safety committee on December 2, which followed a US Lacrosse presentation that focused on the rules and culture of girls’ lacrosse…and our proactive efforts to address player safety ongoing.
Growing awareness, knowledge and concern about concussion in sport has some administrators and parents of lacrosse-playing daughters – some of whom have been struck in the head with a lacrosse ball or stick – wondering why men’s lacrosse helmets are not mandatory in the girls’ game. It’s our contention that a piece of protective equipment specifically designed for the rules and culture of men’s lacrosse is not appropriate for girls’ lacrosse.
There’s no bigger challenge for the leaders of a sport than to effectively balance the integrity of its rules and culture with the importance of player safety. The challenge in lacrosse is even more pronounced because it’s long been one sport comprised of two distinct games. The culture and rules of each game have been significantly different for almost 80 years.
But when a serious injury occurs in a particular sport, the nature of that sport is sometimes questioned or blamed, and that’s been the case lately in girls’ lacrosse. After all, both games use similar sticks and the same ball carried, thrown and caught around the head.
Sometimes lost in this discussion is the fact that the rules of girls’ lacrosse have been carefully and responsibly evolved based primarily on player safety throughout the game's long history. Seven years ago, for example, following a closer look at the mechanism of rare but serious eye injuries caused by errant passes or shots, US Lacrosse lead efforts to establish a manufacturing standard for protective eyewear designed specifically for girls’ lacrosse, which was mandated for all levels of play in 2004. The result has been the elimination of serious eye injuries. More recently, US Lacrosse introduced significant (some would say radical) rule changes for the 2011 season designed specifically to hold players accountable for dangerous play.
Current injury research tells us that the catastrophic head injuries men’s lacrosse helmets were originally designed to prevent are not an issue in girls’ lacrosse. It also shows that the rate of concussion is higher in boys’ lacrosse than girls’ lacrosse…and the rate of concussion in girls’ lacrosse is essentially the same as that of girls’ soccer. However, medical experts generally agree that female athletes may be more susceptible to a concussion injury…and that they seem to have a more challenging recovery time from concussion.
Rule 2, Section 10, of the US Lacrosse Officials Rules for Girls’ and Women’s Lacrosse states that, with the exception of goalies, who understandably wear hard helmets, “…soft headgear may be worn by all players.” But there is no manufacturing standard for headgear that is specifically designed for girls’ lacrosse, so soft headgear products for other sports have been adopted by growing numbers of players. That’s why US Lacrosse recently announced that it would work with the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE) – the same body that established the men’s lacrosse helmet standard – to create a headgear standard specifically designed for girls’ lacrosse. It will take about two years from the start of standard development until headgear meeting that standard is available. It’s currently anticipated that players would continue to have the choice of whether or not to wear headgear. During this development process, we’ll also be investing in research to measure head acceleration in boys’ and girls’ lacrosse, as well as better understand the nature of focal impact caused by errant stick checks or shot follow-throughs.
Led by our US Lacrosse Sports Science & Safety Committee, and supplemented by formal collaborations with organizations such as the National Athletic Trainer’s Association, the American College of Sports Medicine, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine, the NCAA and the NFHS, we’ll continue to evolve and implement a wide range of interventions – involving rules, education, research and equipment development – focused on player safety.
We can’t eliminate the risk of serious injury in boys’ or girls’ lacrosse without completely changing the nature of the games. But the best outcomes come from informed and thoughtful decision-making that's based more on facts than emotion, and that’s what we’re committed to ongoing.