Two Baltimore County delegates have proposed a bill that would require girls lacrosse players in Maryland to use protective headgear, much like their male counterparts, but at least some coaches and officials warn that requiring helmets might actually hurt the game.
“The conversation needs to be pushed because there are young girls that are getting hurt,” said Delegate Jon Cardin, one of the co-sponsors of the bill. “And we want to make sure that this is an issue that is being contemplated by everybody: from coaches to league directors to government officials.”
But prominent figures in the Maryland lacrosse community do not believe headgear — more specifically helmets — would solve the problem of concussions. Instead, they believe it would be a step in the wrong direction for a sport that is thriving in the mid-Atlantic and growing in other parts of the country.
Currently, soft helmets are allowed in girls lacrosse, but not required.
“The women’s game is about elegance, grace, and finesse, not about bashing the stick across someone’s chest (like the men’s game),” said Tom Shankle, owner of Shore Kaos — a Girls Lacrosse Club on the Eastern Shore.
Shankle said helmets could be just the beginning.
“You start with helmets, then you go to arm pads, chest protectors and eventually it’s no longer a girls sport, “ said Shankle. “Then it’s a boys sport.”
If passed, Maryland would be the first state in the country to mandate protective headgear in women’s lacrosse.
US Lacrosse president and CEO Steve Stenersen released a statement Wednesday in which he referred to the proposed legislation as “short-sighted and confusing.”
“We don’t understand why they chose not to contact the sport’s Maryland-based national governing body, and the respected physicians and researchers who comprise our Sports Science and Safety Committee, to learn what is being done to address this important player safety issue,” Stenersen said in the statement.
From 1986 to 1996, the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association mandated ice hockey helmets for girls lacrosse at public high schools. However, research by US Lacrosse found the helmets led to a more aggressive style. The rule was overturned after 10 years.
Cardin and co-sponsor Delegate Dana Stein, both Democrats, are open to hearing from those opposed to helmets.
“You’ll never find a coach that doesn’t want to make sure that their athletes are protected,” Cardin said. “But the question is ‘are we doing the best job that we can?’”
In 2003, US Lacrosse voted to amend the rules of women’s lacrosse to recommend the use of protective eyewear in addition to mouthguards. Two years later, goggles became required.
“That was a great rule because we had had some catastrophic eye injuries,” said Sue Diffenderffer, the president of the Greater Baltimore Chapter of US Lacrosse. “That piece of equipment does what it was intended to do.”
The goggles commonly used include silicone padding around the eyes and a wire mask to protect the eyes and nose.
Goalkeepers at the high school level and below must wear a helmet with a face mask and chin strap, a padded throat protector, gloves, mouth guard, a chest protector and padding on the shins and thighs.
Moira Leavitt, the program director of the Integrity Lacrosse club based in Davidsonville, doesn’t think the introduction of headgear for field players would curb the number of injuries.
She did not see players become more aggressive following the implementation of protective goggles in the mid-2000s, but wonders if adding helmets will create an increased perception of safety.
Girls might think, ‘I’m protected,’” Leavitt said, adding that she has noticed how aggressively field players approach goalkeepers — who wear more protective gear on their bodies – when the goalkeepers leave their designated area known as the crease.
Helmets have been tried before in Maryland. During the 2012 season, the private Bullis School in Potomac, required junior varsity and varsity girls lacrosse teams to wear rugby helmets during games and practices.
The Bulldogs became what Diffenderffer and US Lacrosse said was the first girls lacrosse program in the country to have all of its players wear headgear.
Rather than mandating the use of equipment, Shankle believes the bill in the General Assembly should instead address the need for all coaches and referees to be certified. That, he believes, will prevent the head injuries for which the bill is designed.
“The girls need to know how to position themselves to properly check,” Shankle said. “That’s the problem, when they see an offensive player running down the field the girls get all excited and the defensive player hacks at her like an ax on a log.”
The general rule for checking is that a defender can check the player in possession of the ball if her entire stick is below the shoulder and the check must be down and away from the body.
Cardin, a former lacrosse player at The Park School in Brooklandville and Tufts University, said he welcomed dialogue from both sides as the bill moves forward.
Stein and Cardin said they intend to meet with US Lacrosse soon to discuss their proposal.