Two weeks before the start of the season, many girls’ lacrosse coaches in Maryland are expressing relief that a pair of state lawmakers have decided not to pursue a measure that would have forced young players to wear helmets. On Friday, Dana Stein and Jon Cardin, Democrat delegates from Baltimore County, announced they were withdrawing the portion of House Bill 1123 that required mandatory headgear for teams in public high schools and youth recreation leagues as soon as Oct. 1.
The bill, introduced on Feb. 8, called for most girls’ lacrosse players under the age of 19 to wear protective headgear for all practices and games, in accordance with specifications to be set by an already-existing state concussion task force. As word circulated last week, members of the local girls’ lacrosse community were quick to speak out for preserving the traditional game, which is considered non-contact.
“I think [the Delegates] were bombarded,” said Severna Park Coach Carin Peterson. “I don’t think they realized what a nerve they hit with this. If you want to turn it into guys’ lacrosse, then turn it into guys’ lacrosse, but it’s really two totally different sports, and I hope everyone realizes that.”
Cardin co-sponsored a similar safety measure regarding eye protection for youth baseball players about 10 years ago and when the delegate agreed to put his name on the latest legislation with Stein he said he expected backlash, which came last week in the form of “calls and e-mails from all over the East Coast.”
Some coaches expressed concern that adding a helmet would welcome more physical play. Peterson’s team had no concussions diagnosed last spring, and she said she has seen more head injuries occur with players colliding or hitting the ground, realities with any sport, than from contact from sticks.
Marriotts Ridge Coach Natalie Gaieski said she has had just one player suffer a concussion in her 14-year career, while she has witnessed far more while serving as a volunteer assistant soccer coach at the school.
“Coaches and players should be taught to use their sticks correctly,” said second-year Sherwood Coach Kelly Hughes, a former player there. “That’s where you can start solving the problem.”
Following a conference call on Friday with U.S. Lacrosse President Steve Stenersen, Stein and Cardin agreed to withdraw the part of the bill that called for mandatory headgear. Cardin said by phone Monday that he and Stein had not talked directly with Stenersen before drafting the bill but moved forward with it on the feedback from a group of concerned parents.
In Friday’s announcement, the lawmakers said they were not aware of the efforts U.S. Lacrosse, the national governing body for the men’s and women’s sport based in Baltimore, have put into studying the safety of the sport. The organization has been working with ASTM International for more than a year to develop a standard for protective headgear.
Helmets may well be part of the sport’s future. The current rules require protective goggles and allow for the use of soft helmets. Last year, Bullis Coach Kathleen Lloyd sought to remedy a rash of concussions by outfitting her team in navy blue rugby helmets from a supplier in Centreville. Also an administrator at the school, Lloyd had seen the way those injuries affected her players in the classroom.
The Bulldogs went from seven concussions in 2011 to three last year, and her team also received and drew fewer yellow cards than the year before, which she took to mean the games were no more physical with her team in the headgear.
As a private school, the team would not have been affected by the legislation, but several weeks ago, Lloyd put in her order for a dozen new helmets.
“This is our own experience,” Lloyd said. “We realized we needed to do something for our program and find something that worked for our team. We didn’t realize it would become a bigger issue in our area and beyond.”
For now, U.S. Lacrosse will continue to hold the authority over the use of helmets in Maryland public schools. Stenersen called the decision to withdraw the headgear mandate “wonderful” on Friday after previously declaring the proposed legislation “irresponsible.”
Cardin said he and Stein agreed instead to work with Stenersen to alter the bill, focusing on required universal certification through the organization for all youth coaches and referees throughout Maryland. The state already has specific concussion protocol in place and requires education for coaches, parents and athletes thanks to a law that has been in effect since July 2011.
“This [recent bill] started a very serious conversation about safety in sports, particularly in girls’ lacrosse,” said Cardin, who played lacrosse at Park School in Baltimore and Tufts University. “We wanted to verify and continue to assure the best we can that the [sport] governing bodies are taking safety precautions seriously and doing everything they can to protect young athletes.”