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Safety is more important than the 'cool factor' in helmets

Editor's note: This op-ed has been updated to correct an error concerning the strength levels of certain plastics contained in lacrosse helmets. Polycarbonate plastic protects better than ABS plastic in the author's opinion. The Sun regrets the error. 

I have been the head of sports medicine and the associate athletic director at Gilman School in Baltimore for 29 years. In that time I have seen many changes in the types and quality of the safety equipment worn by athletes in various sports.

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I am writing today to share some personal observations after reading articles in The Sun and other outlets about a controversy swirling in the lacrosse community over the past few months. In case you missed it, two boy's/men's lacrosse helmets were decertified in November by the organization that sets the safety standards for such things, the National Operating Committee for Standards in Athletic Equipment. The helmets in question are the Cascade Model R, which is extremely popular, and the Warrior Regulator. In December, Cascade modified the Model R and was able to receive recertification for its new version. Warrior introduced a new version of its helmet just a few weeks ago.

In my time at Gilman, the boy's lacrosse players first wore a suspension helmet made by Bacharach. In the early '90s, Cascade came onto the scene with a more streamlined design. It was a great looking helmet but did not, in my opinion, provide very good protection.

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When I inquired how the Styrofoam inside the Cascade helmet absorbed shock from getting hit in the head by either a stick or the ground, the owners of Cascade told me, "players don't get hit in the head in lacrosse."

I was not sure what game they played or watched, but clearly it was not boy's/men's lacrosse. Even though the helmet did not offer much protection, many Gilman players still ended up using it because at that time the students were purchasing their own helmets.

Around 2000, Gilman began providing helmets for all interscholastic lacrosse teams. We purchased the Cascade helmet at that time because there was no better option. Things improved when Riddell entered the market.

This helmet provided better protection for the lacrosse player for a number of reasons: The inflatable bladder allowed for a better fit for the athlete as well as some shock absorption, and the type of plastic used was a higher rated  polycarbonate plastic compared to the ABS plastic used in many lacrosse helmets as well as bike helmets. The polycarbonate, from my perspective, did a better job absorbing hits and protecting the athletes.

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At Gilman, we relied on the Riddell helmet for about 10 years. During those years, the number of concussions we saw on the lacrosse field reduced dramatically. When that helmet was no longer available, we had to reluctantly go back to the Cascade and the number of concussions increased once again.

I realize better than most that concussions are a serious issue in sports right now. The helmet manufacturers say that no helmet can prevent concussions, and I agree. But I can tell you that I believe from personal experience that the rate of concussions in lacrosse does have a lot to do with the helmets that are worn.

My guidance to parents is that they need to play a larger role in deciding which helmets their kids purchase. Kids need to know that the "cool" factor is not as important as the safety factor. One of the things parents need to look into is what type of plastic is used in the helmet they are purchasing.

The polycarbonate plastic is a stronger and consequently safer type of plastic in helmets. For many years, I would have this battle with the lacrosse players, until they receive that one big blow to the head. Then suddenly, their desire to look cool went out the window and they wanted the more protective helmet.

As we approach the spring lacrosse season, I hope parents will take the time to do their research and buy the helmet that will best protect their kids. They can't listen to arguments about looking cool or choosing a loosely fitting helmet over one that's more secure and protective. They need to understand the facts and choose a helmet that will keep their kids safe.

Lori Bristow is head of sports medicine at Gilman School as well as the associate director of athletics. Her email is lbristow@gilman.edu.

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