By TIM SCHWARTZ and LIZ LANE
Capital News Service
COLLEGE PARK — As awareness of head injuries in high school sports grows, US Lacrosse is working with a national organization to develop a standard for optional soft headgear for girls’ lacrosse players.
“We’re in a process of developing a standard for headgear that’s specific to the women’s game,” said Melissa Coyne, director of the women’s game for US Lacrosse, the national governing body for youth, high school and national-level lacrosse. “It’s a long process. … We’re doing a lot of research with other groups including manufacturers, including independent labs.”
ASTM International, which develops standards for a wide range of materials and has a sports equipment group, is working with US Lacrosse to develop the standard for optional headgear based on the injury forces generated in girls’ lacrosse play.
“It’s not necessarily looking at a particular product or a particular material,” Coyne said. “It’s looking at what we’re trying to accomplish and then allowing manufacturers to design something around that performance standard.”
The only headgear women’s lacrosse players are now required to wear are protective eye goggles and mouth guards. They can’t wear facemasks, and they can’t wear hard helmets, with the exception of the goalie, who is required to wear a hard helmet. Other girls’ players may wear optional soft headgear — but there are currently no standards for that headgear.
Coyne, who is on the committee working with ASTM, hopes they will put a standard out for ballot by early summer, when an ASTM board will vote on it. She anticipates it will be a year before the standard is in place.
Some involved with the game hope the additional emphasis on headgear will raise injury awareness, and thus help with injury prevention.
But helmets may not solve a high incidence of concussions in both the boys’ and girls’ games.
“The larger conversation is that no matter what piece of headgear a player’s wearing in any sport, none of them prevent concussions,” Coyne said.
In their book “Concussions and Our Kids,” Dr. Robert Cantu and Mark Hyman write that while wearing hard helmets “virtually eliminat[es] skull fractures,” the helmets “should not be regarded as a solution” to preventing concussions. “Helmets offer little or no protection against accelerations” that twist and torque the head, causing the brain to shift inside the skull, they write.
National studies underscore that concussions are a risk in both girls’ and boys’ lacrosse — but only the boys are now required to wear hard, full-head helmets — along with a slew of body pads.
A 2012 study by The American Journal of Sports Medicine looked at high school athletes from 2008 to 2010 and found that girls’ lacrosse had a concussion rate of 3.5 per 10,000 athlete exposures — higher than the overall injury rate of 2.5 concussions per 10,000 exposures in all 20 sports studied. Boys’ lacrosse had the third highest concussion rate, with 4.0 concussions per 10,000 — behind boys’ football and boys’ ice hockey. Girls’ lacrosse had the fourth highest concussion rate on the combined boys’-girls’ list, followed closely by girls’ soccer.
In girls’ lacrosse, concussions usually resulted from player-equipment contact (55.9 percent), player-player contact (28.8 percent) and player-playing surface contact (11.9 percent), The American Journal of Sports Medicine study showed.
Coyne said protective gear differs for boys’ and girls’ lacrosse because their games are played differently.
“We have one sport, but we have two very different games,” Coyne said. “So the conversation is different for the men’s side and for the women’s side, because the mechanism of injury that occurs in the sport is very different.”
The differences are clear in the rules of play. Boys are allowed to body check, meaning they can use their sticks to smack opposing players’ bodies in order to dislodge the ball. Girls are not allowed to hit other girls with their sticks.
Some boys’ defenders have a 6-foot-long stick. Every girl’s stick is the same length, about half that size.
“I would say to you that [women’s lacrosse players] don’t wear a men’s helmet for the same reason that a soccer player doesn’t wear a football helmet — it’s not designed for their game,” Coyne said. “So when we’re talking about protective equipment, which we’re always talking about for the women’s game, what we’re really looking for is something that’s game-specific.”
But some members of the lacrosse community point out that while the rules may not allow for full contact between female lacrosse players, that doesn’t mean potentially injurious plays don’t happen. Lacrosse balls are solid rubber and three inches in diameter. The sticks aren’t much longer than 3 feet but are made of metal and plastic and are swung around with passes and checks. Add the two together, and one wrong move can bring serious injury.
It’s these incidental plays that lead to concussions in girls’ lacrosse. Kathleen Lloyd is the varsity girls’ lacrosse coach at Bullis School in Montgomery County, Md., and said her team sustained an all-time high of seven concussions in the 2012 season – the last season before she took action.
Lloyd now requires her players to wear soft, rugby-style helmets, allowed under US Lacrosse rules. She said this season she has only seen about one concussion.
“Is it because of the helmets? I have no idea, but I do know there’s more awareness,” she said. “It’s become another piece of equipment for the girls. They never ask to not wear it.”
Still, some think that introducing any protective headgear into the girls’ game would change the nature of play — making it more aggressive.
Lauriann Parker, a first-year assistant coach for the girls’ junior varsity lacrosse team at Reservoir High School in Howard County, said girls shouldn’t wear helmets. “Having [helmets] would change the game completely. It wouldn’t be girls’ lacrosse.”
Carrie Smith, a third-year athletic trainer at Reservoir High School in Fulton, Md., said girls in hard helmets would probably feel more empowered to “get more physical.”
Lloyd doesn’t agree.
“[With the helmets] they’re not playing any differently or taking any chances they wouldn’t normally take,” she said. “They are not more aggressive. The helmets raise awareness” about injuries.
Could the difference of opinions stem from a lingering stigma against female athletes?
Men began playing modern lacrosse, a derivative of Native American combat-style games, in the mid-1800s. It wasn’t until 1926 that women played their first organized game in Baltimore.
Female athletes went years without any protective gear at all.
In 2005, female lacrosse players were required by US Lacrosse to wear protective eye goggles. In 2007, US Lacrosse mandated the goalie’s full body passing and hard helmet worn today; she is still the only player on the team with such protective equipment.
US Lacrosse says the women’s game “continues to be one of finesse and speed, using minimum equipment and prohibiting intentional body contact.”
While Lloyd took advantage of the option of wearing soft headgear, she is still sensitive to the other half of the debate and understands she’s only tending to the needs of her individual players.
“I’m not here to change the world, and I don’t want to tell anyone how [to play the game],” Lloyd said. “We’re not doing this to say, ‘Look at us.’ This is the least we can do to protect ourselves.”
The current focus on headgear mirrors some of the early discussions over protective eye masks and goalie equipment, leaving some to wonder where this will lead.
“I remember when the girls started playing with the goggles and everyone said, ‘What is this?’ ” Lloyd said. “The game has evolved. It is evolving. So who knows what will happen?”
Video, below, shows play during a boys’ game (Mount Hebron High School at Reservoir High School) and a girls’ game (Wilde Lake High School at Reservoir High School), both in April 2014. Video by Tim Schwartz.