Just days after lacrosse brand STX unveiled its first helmets for the fast-growing sport, the helmets of two bigger rivals in the category were deemed unsafe.
The turn of events for STX wasn't a fluke. The Baltimore company tipped off the organization that sets safety standards for the equipment. STX, maker of lacrosse sticks and other equipment, was testing its Stallion helmet last summer when it found that two competitors' models failed to meet performance standards.
The response has been swift. The National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment voided certifications for those helmets last month. Then US Lacrosse, the national governing body of men's, women's and youth lacrosse, warned coaches, parents and players not to use the two helmet models or allow them to be worn in games, and alerted tournament officials to remove any players wearing the gear.
The stakes are high. Companies are not only vying for the millions of dollars spent on helmets each year but for customer loyalty. One of the de-certified helmets, the Cascade R, is one of the most popular helmets and likely worn by more than 100,000 players at the youth, high school and college levels, said US Lacrosse CEO Steve Stenersen. Helmets can cost about $250 each.
"It's a tremendously confusing situation for the sport," Stenersen said. The national standards committee "has come out and said these helmets are not safe relative to the standards we have established for lacrosse. ... We're saying it's illegal for you to play with this product because it's decertified. … It's a matter of player safety and a public health concern. And we're trying to drive that out to the marketplace."
U.S. consumers will spend an estimated $105 million on lacrosse equipment this year, up from $85.7 million in 2012, according to Web-based statistics company Statista Inc. STX estimates the market to be larger, with between $225 and $250 million in sales. The company estimated helmet sales to be not more than 20 percent of the market.
Steve Jones, a spokesman for Cascade, said the company disagrees with the findings that led to the decertification but is working on a retrofit plan that could be finalized within days. That plan will include a strategy for fixing or replacing consumers' helmets, he said.
The Cascade R and Warrior Regulator, the other decertified model, are worn by players at all levels. The national standards committee, which sets criteria for protective athletic equipment, gives manufacturers permission to use its logo and trademark on certified equipment through a licensing agreement that requires compliance.
Warrior did not respond to a request for comment. The company said on its website that it disagrees and is disappointed in the decision but is working with the standards committee to resolve the issues. It directs consumers to customer service and said players "should hold onto their Regulator helmets for the short term."
Uncertainty over how and when problems will be fixed has made it tough to plan for the coming spring season, Stenersen said.
Calvert Hall College High School lacrosse coach Bryan Kelly said the school normally orders its helmets this time of year but is waiting "to see how things fall out" with the helmets. Team tryouts are in February, and the school has been using Cascade R and Cascade CPX-R models.
"I'm not panicking over it, but I'm kind of taking a wait-and-see approach," Kelly said. "The hard part is a lot of our kids have bought helmets on their own. We've got to get it approved because you can't mess around with concussions."
STX, which has spent two years creating a helmet in a partnership with Schutt Sports, reported its findings in September to the national standards committee as well as to the competitors and governing bodies for the sport. It publicized the findings on its website.
"As a consumer products company, whenever you're trying to make a better product, you want to do comparison testing," STX President Jason Goger said Monday. He added that the company decided to publicize its findings after verifying them internally and in two independent accredited labs.
Representatives of Cascade, a brand of Performance Sports Group, responded with "several threatening letters," Goger said. "They felt we were falsely reporting information. ... When there's someone with almost monopoly-like status in any industry, it takes someone with courage to report some things."
Jones, the Cascade spokesman, said the brand is working closely with the standards committee, or NOCSAE, on a retrofit for the model R helmet. Jones said the helmets passed testing at two out of three accredited labs, but failed to pass at the lab used by STX and the standards committee.
Cascade says it has more than 80 percent of the U.S. market share in lacrosse helmets.
"There are some differing opinions," Jones said. "We completely disagree with … the conclusions, but that said … we're working with NOCSAE to get the helmets certified and get kids back out there playing lacrosse."
NOCSAE, which posted responses to questions on its website, said it based its decision on its own independent investigation, but said that was prompted by the third-party laboratory test results obtained by Schutt and STX.
STX developed its Stallion 500 helmet after it formed a partnership with Schutt, a top brand in football helmets known for quality control. STX has branched into ice and field hockey but was waiting for the right partner to get into the lacrosse helmet business.
Goger said sales of the new helmet have started strong, with interest from club, college and high school teams. "People are realizing there is an alternative now," he said. "This industry needs competition."
Goger said he became aware of some of the safety issues after hearing about lacrosse helmet testing as part of football concussion studies done by researchers at Purdue University and Lynchburg College.
Dr. Katie Breedlove, a researcher in Purdue's department of health and kinesiology, began football and lacrosse helmet drop tests last October with faculty in the university's mechanical engineering department and at Lynchburg College. In the research, due to be published in the next couple of weeks, nine lacrosse helmets were found to either crack or fail to meet minimum thresholds for protection, she said.
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"There needs to be more transparency in the industry," Breedlove said. "When you buy a car, you can look up the safety test/impact test scores because they are public. Helmet manufacturers don't have to publish their results. … Football helmets do so much better on the drop testing, and there are lessons to be learned there. … While lacrosse players aren't tackling like football players, there is still head contact in the sport and it's not unheard of for helmets to crack at higher levels."
Lacrosse specialty store LAX World in Timonium said Monday it would give full refunds for any Cascade R helmets purchased from the store and offer store credit for others. Warrior has asked customers to contact the manufacturer directly.
"We were instructed to pull all of the Rs, even the display ones, take them off the floor and not offer them as an option to customers," said store manager Nate Welsh. But he said, "Cascade has been extremely proactive with us. For the last decade, they've been considered one of the most reliable options for helmets."
"We've gotten a lot of phone calls" about the helmets, he said. "A lot of people are waiting to see what happens."
Baltimore Sun reporter Jeff Barker contributed to this article.
The online version of this story has been supplmented with additional market information supplied by STX.