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Game must act

The Baltimore Sun

As Conor Finch lay on the field Monday evening, convulsing, I kept asking myself when the sport of lacrosse is going to do something about the growing number of concussions.

Ask any player these days, from the youth leagues to the professional teams, and everybody seems to have had one. They are as common as tattoos, almost as synonymous with lacrosse as faceoffs and body checks.

It's getting scary. Worse yet, most of the sport's governing bodies appear to be ignoring the issue. It will continue that way until the inevitable happens, when a player suffers paralysis or, worse yet, death.

We all understand the nature of lacrosse, that it's a physical game. And with contact come injuries. But with the injuries, there also has to be prevention, which hasn't kept pace with the evolution of the players who are bigger, stronger and faster these days.

But here are just a few suggestions to the lords of lacrosse and some actions that parents and schools need to adopt to possibly reduce the growing number of head injuries.

First of all, any blow to the head should result in a penalty. Any head-to-head shot should warrant an automatic ejection.

There should be no room for discussion. No debate. Goodbye.

Lacrosse officials are currently too subjective, much like NFL officials when they flagged a player for a facemask. One facemask penalty used to be 5 yards; another used to be 15. This year, they're all worth 15 yards.

It should be that cut-and-dried in lacrosse, as well.

"I believe that referees are too subjective in their interpretations," longtime McDaniel trainer Gregg Nibbelink said. "Head shots are supposed to be penalized. They should not be left up to the discretion of the referee to rule on the player's intention or if the hit was serious.

"If a rule was in place to severely penalize the player [two to three minutes, nonreleasable], no matter the force applied to the head with a stick, then the subjectivity would be removed and a greater level of safety could be reached," he said. "By requiring the athletes to focus on using proper technique, appropriate skills are emphasized and the game is played as it should be."

How many times have we seen offensive players get hit after shots? How many more times can that happen before someone gets seriously hurt? The days of 165- and 175-pound defensemen are over. Some of these guys are as big as NFL outside linebackers.

A new rule would cut down on the injuries to attackmen and midfielders, who are vulnerable while shooting.

We live in a society that is bloodthirsty. Coaches demand the vicious hit, and parents applaud it. Certainly, I have no problem with good, clean hits because they're a part of the game.

I don't know whether Finch was hurt Monday as the result of a late hit. But a lot of the ones that were delivered from the same team afterward were cheap, intentional and downright blatant. Worse yet, the officials, who should have taken more control of the game, called few.

But I don't put a lot of the blame on the officials.

I put a lot of the blame on coaches. I've coached before, and still coach. I know what it's like to preach intensity, fear and intimidation, especially around the crease.

But there is no reason, no excuse, to tolerate or allow players to hit others late or allow them to hurt others. Coaches should control players, and not vice versa. Usually, when a coach gets out of control, his players quickly follow.

Some of these concussions are the results of mean-spirited and unsportsmanlike hits. And they should be unacceptable to all.

Parents can play a role in reducing the number of concussions. Nibbelink recommends parents become involved in choosing the right mouthguards and helmets. There are now lacrosse helmets that are padded like football helmets.

The interior pads can be inflated with air so they fit snugly around the head to absorb shock. They are much improved over some others that basically offer a simple layer of hard foam inside.

Those helmets will protect the exterior of the head, but they don't absorb the shock of a hit. The football-type helmets are slightly heavier, but definitely safer.

With players dropping daily because of concussions, they are a wise investment for parents and schools.

"My guess is that because lacrosse is growing at such a tremendous rate, we will probably see an increase in concussion rates just because of the numbers," said Nibbelink. "However, the concussion rate could also be increased because the sport has become increasingly physical and violent. If the sport doesn't control the violent aspect, more and more concussions will continue."

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