The debate over whether girls lacrosse players should wear helmets—as boys are required to do—has been simmering for years. But with concussion awareness at an all-time high and the rate of traumatic brain injuries in girls lacrosse on the rise, the issue has moved to the forefront of the sport at both the national and local levels.
In May 2015 US Lacrosse announced a headgear performance standard for the women’s game had been approved by ASTM International, a global standards development organization that oversees sports equipment. Use of headgear is still optional per US Lacrosse rules, but beginning Jan. 1 all headgear must meet the new standard, which was developed to help reduce the impact of contact with a stick or ball.
Montgomery County Public Schools Athletics Specialist Jeff Sullivan said that while he’s monitoring the issue, the school system is unlikely to enforce the wearing of mandatory headgear by high school athletes unless told to do so by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS).
“With a school system our size, we rely on [the NFSH],” Sullivan said. “We follow their lead. [Helmets in girls lacrosse] is not a slam dunk issue…our standpoint is to look to follow what the national federation recommends before we make a move.”
But two girls lacrosse programs within the county—one public, one private—have already taken matters into their own hands and according to coaches, the result has been a positive one.
Six years ago, concussions sustained by seven players on the Bullis School girls lacrosse team sparked a conversation about wearing headgear, Bulldogs coach Kathleen Lloyd said. By the next season, her team was—and still is—wearing helmets. Similarly, after four Quince Orchard High School student-athletes were sidelined with head injuries by spring break this year, the Cougars decided as a team to order helmets for the remainder of the season.
“It was a collaborative effort [with parents, players and the administration],” Lloyd said of the Bullis decision to wear helmets. “We had a lot of concussions so we came together and said, ‘What can we do?’ I had seen individual girls at other schools wearing rugby helmets. So, when my [head of school] came to me and asked if there was something out there [to help with the concussions], I said yes.”
A concussion is a traumatic brain injury that causes a change in neurological function. While concussions are largely associated with a hard hit to the head, they are more directly a result of the brain shaking within the skull and can often occur when the head and upper body are merely jolted.
A 2012 epidemiology of concussions study performed at The Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, and published in The American Journal of Sports Medicine (AJSM) revealed concussions represented a greater proportion of total injuries in lacrosse, at 21.1 percent, than another other girls sport investigated.
In addition, a recent High School Sports-Related Injury Surveillance Study found that girls lacrosse ranked fifth out of 19 sports, in rate of concussions sustained.
Concussions are not preventable. The goal for US Lacrosse, according to its website, was to develop a product that could serve as an intervention for head impact.
Those skeptical of the need for headgear in girls lacrosse have focused on two major arguments: Helmets would only protect players from being hit in the head by equipment and be ineffective against player-to-player contact, and wearing them would change the culture of the game by enabling players to become even more aggressive.
But, according to the AJSM study, 55.9 percent of concussions in girls lacrosse were the result of player-equipment contact and even more specifically, player-stick contact, which was at 41.7 percent.
Thomas S. Wootton High School coach Shannon Holiday said she also worried helmets might encourage more physical play among athletes, but said she no longer believes that after watching her team play Bullis the past three years.
The consensus among county coaches is mostly indifference toward the possible implementation of mandatory headgear—though, as more studies are published, this seems likely to change. But coaches did agree student-athlete safety comes first and any directive aimed at protecting players would be welcomed.
Holiday said while changes can be difficult to embrace at first, it is important for safety protocol to continue to evolve with the sport itself. Though there are rules against player-to-player contact, the girls lacrosse being played today is faster and more physical than it was 10 to 15 years ago.
Holiday recalled the initial hesitation within the girls lacrosse community toward wearing protective eye gear when players were first required to wear goggles in 2004, but said fears of the gear hindering play were unfounded and the protection is now considered highly necessary.
Lloyd said her student-athletes’ play has not been affected by the helmets. The biggest “obstacle” to wearing the helmets, she added, was that her players needed to be a bit louder when communicating with each other.
US Lacrosse’s release of a headgear standard could be a defining moment for the sport. It’s unlikely MCPS will see any changes in the immediate future but in the meantime, Sullivan said concussion education and awareness remains a major factor in players’ safety.
“One thing we lead with and something that we’ve been at the front of the line with is the awareness and education component…with student-athletes, coaches and parents, making sure everyone is on board with the protocol,” Sullivan said. “Helmets [in girls lacrosse] is one component that is controversial right now.”