By Chris Peraino, Jordan Boyd, Christian Cangiano and Joseph Caccavale
The 2017 season will be the first time that girl’s lacrosse players on Long Island will have the option to wear a helmet during play, a new rule sparking debate over whether headgear will embolden players and make the game more physical.
The option follows an Aug. 30, 2016 announcement by US Lacrosse, the sport’s national governing body, to make helmets available for all levels of play: youth league through college. Most schools are leaving the decision to wear a helmet up to the players. Some provide helmets, while others simply allow their students to purchase their own. Seven schools have made helmets mandatory.
“Since this is the first year that wearing helmets is optional in this sport, the district decided to invest in providing this added layer of protection,” James Montalto, Public Relations Director of William Floyd High School, a school that has made helmets mandatory, said.
The allowance of soft headgear in girl’s lacrosse rules has existed since 1996. What is new is a ASTM standard for headgear; manufacturers must prove that their helmets can withstand a 60-mph impact from a standard lacrosse ball before their helmets can enter production. Opposed to the hard shell helmets of boy’s lacrosse, the girl’s helmets are flexible and cave on impact.
“We wanted to maintain the optional nature of headgear, it was a critical part of the standard that it would not be dangerous to other players who were not wearing them,” Caitlin Kelley, Senior Manager of Women’s Lacrosse at US Lacrosse, said. “As such the women’s headgear standard ASTM F3137 requires that the equipment of a certain malleability. It is not completely rigid and can give a certain amount when impacted.”
Since contact is not legally allowed in girl’s lacrosse (it is in men’s lacrosse), the sport is, in theory, a noncontact sport. But players do run the risk of being hit in the head by a ball or another player’s stick. According to a Newsday study of concussions within Long Island high school athletics, 65 of 4,431 girl’s lacrosse players were concussed in the 2015-16 school year. That works out to one concussion for every 68 players, a less frequent rate than that of girl’s soccer and basketball, in which one of every 41 and 54 players were concussed, respectively. Boys lacrosse notched one concussion for every 81 players.
Newsday compiled these statistics by obtaining reports from over 100 schools. The New York State Public High School Athletic Association requires coaches to fill out comprehensive concussion reports at the end of every season. Newsday’s compilation only accounts for the 2015-16 season and it is up to each high school’s coach to accurately report all cases of concussions.
Tracy Wiener, who founded Farmingdale School District’s girl’s lacrosse program in 1991, is a girl’s lacrosse purist. She believes in order to add excitement and make girl’s lacrosse a more appealing spectator sport, USL has slowly implemented rules more similar to that of men’s lacrosse. But what is gained in scoring and physicality is lost in tactic and skill. It is because of this changing landscape, one she claims is wholly different than when she began coaching 25 years ago, that she opposes helmets. She believes that they advance a more aggressive style of play.
“The changes I’ve seen in the 25 years have been pretty dramatic,” Wiener said. “I think also they’re trying to make it more fan-friendly to watch. You look at men’s lacrosse: on TV all the time. They cover every NCAA game now. Every round of it, on the weekends. You can watch a men’s lacrosse game anytime you want. Because it’s exciting, physical, nasty. The girl’s games are a little harder to find.”
USL opted to make helmets optional and not mandatory due to a lack of data that details they are effective enough in preventing injury warrant a mandate, Kelley said.
“The warrior effect is something that is discussed and something we will be better able to evaluate with injury data and reporting,” Kelley said.
Shannon Smith, Hofstra University’s girl’s lacrosse head coach, agrees with Wiener that the sport is becoming more physical and fast-paced. Because of travel clubs, girls are more skillful than ever before. But she thinks this evolution only supports the need for helmets in play.
“The game has evolved,” Smith said. “It’s become quicker. It’s become faster. People can shoot from further out now. I think the headgear will make the game safer because the game has evolved.”
Some think helmets are even past due.
“Helmets in the girl’s lacrosse game is something that is a long time coming,” Pat Bishop, former professor of kinesiology at the University of Waterloo and an expert on head injuries in sports, said. “While the frequency of such direct blunt trauma may be low, the consequences can be, and often is, very devastating.”
Two helmet models approved
Two helmets have been approved by US Lacrosse: the Cascade LX and the Hummingbird Women’s Lacrosse Headgear.
The Cascade helmet features a two piece look, sporting a visor attached to a base akin to that of a bicycle helmet. The metal visor serves as a replacement to the goggles that players already wear. Hummingbird’s helmet are similar to a baseball helmet and fits around goggles. Neither model provides protection below the eyes, differing from men’s helmets that encompass the entire head.
“This is more like a bicycle helmet,” Carol Rainson Rose, Northport High School’s girls lacrosse coach, said of the Cascade LX. “It’s not hard and it’s a lot lighter than the boys helmet.”
Cascade outfitted both the Northport and Mount Sinai high school team’s – premiere Long Island squads – with helmets to test out this season.
Cascade and Hummingbird will also monitor the helmet’s performance in order to make future adjustments.
USL will do the same and collect data on the effectiveness and impact of helmets. This season’s players will serve as the first guinea pigs in a study that may potentially lead to future mandates.
Even Wiener thinks that this is inevitable.
“If you had asked me 10 years ago if I thought we’d be wearing helmets I would have laughed at you,” Wiener said. “And here we are today… No school without helmets is going to want to play a team with helmets and have a player be concussed.”