It’s the day of another Starr’s Mill lacrosse game, and Marie Broderick receives a familiar text from her daughter Caroline.
Do I have to wear my helmet today?
Marie’s response is the same as it has been every time since Caroline was concussed in a basketball game a year and a half ago. She isn’t going to let her 16-year-old daughter take any chances with sustaining another concussion.
As a result, Caroline spent this past season as one of the only lacrosse players on her team with a helmet, hardly the result of an overprotective mother. Some entire girls’ lacrosse teams have made the decision to wear helmets. The state of Florida is making all girls wear helmets beginning next season. Georgia may be close behind, as many coaches expect helmets to become state mandated in a couple seasons.
For now, the choice to wear a helmet in a Georgia high school girls’ lacrosse game is up to the schools, and, to a greater extent, the parents. There is an ongoing debate as to whether the protection a helmet offers a girls’ lacrosse player is worth the headgear potentially making the game more physical and increasing the chances of injury.
Marie, whose younger daughter Jacqueline suffers from migraines at 14 years old because of a concussion suffered in a lacrosse game last August, thinks every lacrosse player should be equipped with a helmet during games and doesn’t predict the sport to become more physical as a result.
“I really think the game can stay the same,” Marie said.
Not everyone agrees, but few coaches and athletic trainers in Fayette County have a strong opinion one way or the other.
Unlike girls, who wear protective goggles, boys’ lacrosse players are equipped with helmets and pads, which is designed to protect against the much more physical nature of the boys’ game. Stick checking isn’t allowed in girls’ lacrosse, and that isn’t expected to change once helmets are enforced.
While the concussion issue is not unique to lacrosse, statistics show that concussions in girls’ lacrosse is enough of an issue that it deserves attention.
According to a 2012 study of the National Academy of Sciences, lacrosse trailed only football in concussion risk. A 2013 report from the Institute of Medicine and National Research listed girls’ lacrosse as one of three girls’ sports with the highest rates of concussions, with soccer and basketball being the other two.
In a 2015 study by Injury Epidemiology, girls were found to be more at risk than boys of sustaining a concussion in a lacrosse game. Finally, a Reuters Health report on April 19 published results from a study that stated girls are 50 percent more likely to sustain a concussion than boys.
So why don’t more girls wear helmets if they are allowed to? The expense, for one, is the main factor holding parents back from joining Marie in forcing their daughters to wear a helmet. Most girls’ lacrosse helmets cost from $140-150. When the rest of the team, for the most part, isn’t wearing a caged helmet, it can be tempting to simply let girls wear goggles.
Even Marie admits there are disadvantages to wearing a helmet when competing against goggle-wearing players. She said it limits Caroline’s peripheral vision and it isn’t always comfortable wearing a helmet in the heat, especially later on in the season.
Plus, there’s no guarantee the one player wearing the helmet will be the safest. McIntosh head coach David High said out of all his players this past season, only one suffered a concussion: a goalie who happened to be the only player on her team wearing a helmet at the moment of impact.
“The helmets are not going to protect you from everything,” High said.
But still, High doesn’t foresee a significant change in playing style with the impending switch to mandated helmet-wearing. He said the way the sticks are designed in girls’ lacrosse, the slightest knock into another person wouldn’t dislodge the ball.
In boys’ lacrosse, there is more sag in the net, and therefore, physical contact, to an extent, is encouraged. Minor stick-to-stick contact in the boys’ game could send a ball flying out of the net, whereas a change of possession in the girls’ game is usually a result of a missed shot attempt or errant pass.
Daniel McAdams, the regional athletic training coordinator at Drayer Physical Therapy Institute, works with athletes in both football and lacrosse, among other sports. He said sometimes the newest football helmets can give players a false sense of security, and he is wary of girls’ lacrosse becoming more aggressive because the players might feel safer.
“I think it’s going to come down in the women’s game to the rules and how they are instituted,” McAdams said.
Like many others, Whitewater community coach Brian Landers, who has coached both boys’ and girls’ lacrosse, finds himself on the fence of the debate. He sees the purpose for the helmet as a necessary measure to prevent inadvertent stick-to-head contact, but he could envision the sphere — an invisible bubble 8-12 inches around the head off-limits for opposing lacrosse sticks — shrinking for the same reason McAdams stated: the unfounded belief that a helmet keeps a player completely guarded from possible injury to the head.
In the Atlanta area, some private schools have already adopted requiring their girls’ lacrosse players to wear helmets. Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School faced McIntosh in a playoff game on May 2 in a clash of helmet-wearers vs. goggle-wearers. The goggles (McIntosh) won 20-11, and the game wasn’t overly physical, despite the equipment mismatch.
Holy Innocents’ head coach Julie LaFramboise said the school’s parents asked for helmets before this past season because there were seven concussions on the team the year prior.
“We’ve had no concussions since then,” LaFramboise said.
Georgia High School Athletic Association director of media relations Steve Figueroa told Fayette Newspapers that the National Federation of State High School Associations makes the rules for girls’ lacrosse.
“If (or when) the NFHS mandates the wearing of helmets, the GHSA will certainly enforce those rules,” Figueroa wrote in an email.
While the helmet rule isn’t yet in the GHSA rulebook, Landers said there are other areas of girls’ lacrosse the state can work on to make the game safer. In surrounding counties south of Fayette, where many schools have recently added lacrosse teams, the infancy of the programs has ushered in coaches and referees who have just as much experience — or, more often than not, less experience — than the players on the field.
As a result, Landers said, more girls’ lacrosse players are being put at risk because coaches are not trained in teaching safe methods of playing and referees are not well-versed enough in the sport to call the correct penalties.
“It comes down to schools taking responsibility for bringing in people who know the game,” Landers said.
Even Marie knows simply securing her daughters with helmets is an imperfect solution. She compares the skull to a glass and the brain to an ice cube. Even if there’s a koozie on the glass, if someone, or something, makes contact with the koozie, the ice cube is still going to move.
The question, once the inevitable takes place and every girls’ lacrosse player in Georgia is wearing a helmet, is whether the game will become more physical. With proper preparation, not only among players but also coaches and referees, Landers said the game can and should become safer for all.
“Everybody knows it’s coming, so I think everybody’s just going to have to understand it’s coming and get on board,” Landers said.
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