Florida mandates helmets for high school girls’ lacrosse players


Woodgrove player Nora Bowen,12, gets off her shot despite the defense of Loudoun Valley's Tara Davis, left, during the Virginia 5A state title game. (Richard A. Lipski/For the Washington Post)

Last week, the Florida High School Athletic Association’s Board of Directors took an unprecedented and controversial step by passing a mandate that will require high school girls’ lacrosse players in the state to wear helmets in the 2015 season.

The decision came against the urging of U.S. Lacrosse, the game’s national governing board, which sent representatives to the FHSAA meetings. USL is in the process of identifying a “consensus headgear” based on research and “the importance of appropriately balancing player safety with game integrity,” according to a statement issued by Vice President of Lacrosse Operations Ann Kitt Carpenetti last week.

FHSAA spokesperson Corey Sobers said the organization has yet to decide what type of helmet it will require — soft or hard, like a boys’ helmet — but that the FHSAA hopes to make that decision by the fall. He also said the decision won’t come with any accompanying rule changes that would affect gameplay.

“Everybody’s seen the E:60 stories and the research people are doing and seen it anecdotally. Some of our board members are athletic directors, and they’ve seen issues with head injuries on their own,” Sobers said. “We just wanted to protect the kids without changing the actual game, and that’s the intent of this mandate.”

U.S. Lacrosse’s current rules say that “soft headgear may be worn by all players” and that “face masks are not allowed,” and most players stick to the required goggles that protect the eyes but don’t cover the rest of the face or head. Rules prohibit contact to the head, but girls’ lacrosse nevertheless exhibits one of the highest concussion rates of any high school sport, according to various studies.

In her statement, Carpenetti called the FHSAA’s decision “irresponsible,” as the mandate doesn’t account for the “mechanism of head injury” in girls’ lacrosse, a game “entirely different from its male counterpart” where body-to-body and stick-to-body contact is more frequent and forceful.

While she acknowledged the importance of the FHSAA’s safety concerns, she said U.S. lacrosse is concerned by the idea of mandating the use of helmets not “designed and manufactured specifically to mitigate that injury mechanism.” U.S. Lacrosse hopes to identify and approve its consensus headgear by this fall.

“The FHSAA certainly heard the U.S. Lacrosse data and are aware of their stance, but our prevailing sense was we don’t want to wait until something catastrophic happens to spur us to action,” Sobers said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you saw more states go to helmets in the next few years.”

Instituting helmets in girls’ lacrosse is not a new idea. Several areas have considered the move in recent years. In 2012, the New York State Public High School Athletic Association voted down a motion requiring helmets for its girls lacrosse players.

In 2013, a bill was brought before the Maryland State Legislature requiring the Department of Education to mandate helmets for girls’ lacrosse players. After U.S. Lacrosse presented data to lawmakers who also heard feedback from coaches and parents, the helmet mandate part of the bill was withdrawn.

The Bullis girls’ lacrosse team began wearing rugby-style helmets in 2012, but few other teams have adopted similar policies. Ned Sparks of the MPSSAA said such a measure is “not on the state’s radar screen at this particular time.”

“We have no data that speaks to the fact that helmets are needed, that it’s inherently more dangerous than field hockey or girls’ soccer or anything else,” Sparks said. “At this point, it’s not something we’re giving consideration.”

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