The pictures get emailed to US Lacrosse periodically each summer. There’s a tall player standing next to a much shorter player with a note to the effect of, “How could you let this happen?”

The picture tells one story, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Did one child simply mature earlier than his peers? Did the event or league group players appropriately? Did someone skirt the rules, just trying to get enough players together to field a team? Or did someone simply lie about their ages to gain a competitive advantage?

In many cases, there’s no way to know.

“I don’t see a whole lot of flat-out cheating,” said Jamie Munro, founder and CEO of 3d Lacrosse, which runs tournaments and has club teams playing around the country. “I think there’s some serious disorganization.”

“At the young ages, it’s the Wild West,” said Mike Chanenchuk, a partner with the Long Island Express Club. “No one checks anything.”

To be fair, some entities check at various levels. For its own regional and national championships, US Lacrosse requires birth certificates to be submitted in advance of the tournament. Aloha Tournaments, which runs roughly 25 events in more than 10 states, requires each team to submit a roster with birthdates. All of those rosters are checked to ensure they are assigned to the proper age groups, but there is no validation that the ages provided are true.

For many other events, lacrosse essentially relies on an honor system. Based on the volume of complaints, it’s not working.

US Lacrosse is attempting to address some of the issues affecting youth lacrosse with two new initiatives — age verification and event sanctioning.

Should leagues and events group youth players by age or their grade in school? It’s a divisive question, with advocates on both sides. US Lacrosse believes players should be grouped by age.

“Age isn’t a perfect predictor of maturity, but it is the most practical to give minimum variance,” said Paige Perriello, a pediatrician from Charlottesville, Va., who played at Princeton and now serves on the US Lacrosse Sports Science and Safety Committee.

Current US Lacrosse youth rules allow for 24-month spans in the age groupings, primarily because it can be challenging to get enough players in a single age group together. Bruce Griffin, director of health and sport safety for US Lacrosse, says the organization’s preference is that teams are grouped by single years, like U10, U11 and U12.

But for the age groupings to carry any weight, to better safeguard players and to maintain game integrity, leagues and events must enforce these regulations and require some form of age validation.

If you go to a club soccer game at many locations around the country, five minutes before the game starts, the two teams line up and players show their US Club Soccer photo ID cards to a referee to confirm their identity and age. The process takes about two minutes for a 20-player roster.

“Why can’t the soccer model be duplicated by US Lacrosse?” Chanenchuk asked.

That’s what US Lacrosse is trying to do with its age verification process.

“I’ve been talking to a lot of club directors and I think they want some rules,” said Chris Hutchins, co-owner of Aloha Tournaments. “We’re about 15 to 20 years behind soccer. As the sport matures, it would be a great thing if everybody gets on the same page.”

“Everybody’s life would be easier if there was a single way of doing it,” Munro said.

For that to happen, the notion of separating by grade at the youth level would have to go away. College coaches like to see players grouped together by class year to organize their recruiting efforts. And while that makes sense at the high school level, must such groupings spill down to the younger age groups, as the recent trend has been?

Potentially a bigger problem, regardless of the age groupings, remains what rules events and leagues use. They vary.

“What set of rules are you playing by?” asked Melissa Coyne, director of games administration for US Lacrosse. “If the rules are appropriate for that age group, then a lot of the problems go away.”

“We were playing college rules with my fifth graders,” Chanenchuk said of a recent event. “Sometimes you have different rules in the same tournament. You have one set of refs and then the new group comes in and they’re using different rules, because no one told them what the rules are.”

And that speaks to US Lacrosse sanctioning efforts.

US Lacrosse recently hired a sanctioning manager, former George Washington player Jessica Hicks, to lead efforts to develop a program that would allow events that meet established criteria to be officially sanctioned by US Lacrosse.

The sanctioning program would give players the best possible experience, and a safe one, by ensuring that events use age-appropriate rules, follow recommended game formats, have medical personnel on-site and use only US Lacrosse-certified officials, among other guidelines.

For age verification and event sanctioning to be effective, US Lacrosse needs buy-in from the lacrosse community to embrace a consistent set of guidelines. If not, the Wild West will keep on blazing its trails.

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The US Lacrosse Youth Rules and Best Practices Guidebooks provide guidelines for youth lacrosse organizations to make sure the emphasis is on the health and well-being of the children playing the sport, and their enjoyment and development in the game.

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