Women's lacrosse has been warning its people for years: Dial it back, or they will make us wear helmets.
Coaches, players and referees knew that if their elegant game got rough, the powers that be would impose helmets. Goggles were required in 2005, and that was just the warning shot.
Thanks to the National Football League and the National Hockey League, concussions are no longer the accident that sometimes happens to someone else's kid while playing sports. Brain injuries caused by repeated blows to the head are causing dementia — or worse, suicide — among yesterday's heroes in professional sports.
So, when a constituent asked Baltimore County Del. Dana Stein if there was a way to make lacrosse safer for girls and young women, he wrote legislation that would require players in public schools and recreational leagues to wear protective head gear. And he got fellow Baltimore County Del. Jon Cardin, who played the game at Park School and Tufts University, to co-sponsor.
Neither delegate thought the measure would pass — not in Maryland, where lacrosse is as sacred as football is in Pennsylvania or hockey in Canada. But both men hoped that the legislation would prompt a conversation about how to make the women's game safer.
And they got shouted down.
"There are emotional people on both sides," said Delegate Cardin, in an understatement.
Scores of emails arrived, and although some were supportive, most excoriated them for their interference in the integrity and tradition of the women's game. Some warned of unintended consequences. And the sport's governing body, Baltimore-based US Lacrosse, released a statement saying, in essence, you might have called us first.
Turns out, US Lacrosse has a task force looking into head gear for women. CEO Steve Stenersen told the delegates that a report was expected in a few months and new rules by 2014. I asked Delegate Stein if he understood that to mean mandatory head gear for women, and he said he did. Mr. Stenersen said through a spokesman that he was not available to discuss this.
Although USL does not currently permit hard helmets in women's lacrosse, soft, rugby-style helmets are allowed. Bullis School, a private high school in Potomac, requires girls to wear the soft helmets, which are advertised only to prevent contusions, not concussions.
My thought is that if you want to make women's lacrosse safer, you need to make knee and ankle braces mandatory, because leg injuries are far and away the most common injury. Concussions are much less frequent because stick-to-the-head contact and body checking are forbidden. Players are not even permitted to pierce the 7-inch halo around an opponent's head.
In fact, women's lacrosse has so little in common with the men's game that it ought to be called something else altogether. But it is often dads, who played the men's game, who are coaching their daughters' rec league teams. Often they don't know how to teach girls how to stick check, a gradual progress toward proficiency that does not involve beating and jabbing an opponent the way the boys' game does.
That's why the guys wear helmets, shoulder pads and gloves, and the girls don't.
And the women's game needs good refereeing, especially around the goal, where most of the injuries occur.
"What we learned [in this discussion]," said Delegate Stein, "is that the quality of refereeing is just as important if not more important."
After speaking with Mr. Stenersen, Delegates Stein and Cardin reworked the bill to require coaches and referees to have US Lacrosse certification, which can only mean better training for the grown-ups who, at the end of the day, control what happens on the field.
It is possible that the introduction of more protective gear will make the game rougher for women and provide a false sense of safety. One survey found that youth hockey players believe helmets prevent head injuries instead of just moderating their severity. It might be argued that in football, the replacement of the leather helmet with a hard shell did nothing so much as make football players think they are invincible — and provide them with a weapon.
The other way to look at this is: Safety helmets are here to stay, and they are only going to find their way into more contact sports. Soccer is next. Can basketball be far behind? If you object, join the drama club, where the chance of scenery falling on your head is not statistically significant.
Women's lacrosse has changed, as have so many sports, with the quality of the athletes playing it. It is faster now, and the young women are bigger and stronger. But it is still not football or hockey.
And it is not men's lacrosse.