Would helmets help in girls lacrosse?

Posted at 11:00 PM, May 20, 2014
and last updated 2014-06-10 15:04:09-04

RICHMOND, Va. (WTVR) – Thanks to Title IX, there are more scholarship opportunities available to women and girls than ever before.

In order to comply with its requirements, some colleges and universities have expanded their athletic departments to include sports like lacrosse.

Girls lacrosse is a relatively new sport to public high schools in Virginia, but it is gaining a lot of popularity, even with athletes who have spent a lot of time in other sports.

Because many athletes are new to lacrosse, some players don’t have the level of experience they might in sports like softball or soccer. That has led to injuries.

Lisa Smith, 17, plays for the girls lacrosse team at Mills Godwin High School in Henrico's West End.

She was recently honored as part of her team's senior night, but she is only a junior.

She has endured four concussions since she started playing in the 8th grade. The last concussion occurred after she started using what is called a "soft helmet."

"One of the concussions messed up the nerve path from my eyes to my brain so I see stars all the time," Lisa said. "According to the doctors, I shouldn't [play]. It's not safe for me to play anymore."

Lisa's teammate at Godwin High, Lauren Harms has only suffered one concussion, but it was enough for her to temporarily lose 85 percent of the vision in one eye.

"In my right eye, I couldn't see for a little bit, it got blurry," Lauren said. "It's getting better, but it's still not quite there."

Part of the solution, experts said, is better fundamentals.

Godwin head coach Steve Worfolk tries to avoid panicking his players, but still wants them to play as aggressively as possible.

"It's teaching them where they can move their stick, how to check the ball," Worlfolk said.  "As they learn fundamentals, that does cut down on getting checked in a spot where they shouldn't be checked."

But the number of concussions in the game has more than doubled since 2002. That has parents worried for not only their children's present, but also their future.

Mark Smith, Lisa's father, is one such parent who uses everyday interactions to check on his daughter's health.

"Even in common discussions, I always listen to what she says. Does she repeat, does she forget something," Smith said.  "We're talking about the mental acuity of a child going forward into maturity. It's too dangerous and it's got to stop."

Smith would like to see girls be able to wear full protective helmets like the one's worn in the boys game. But they aren't allowed.

This isn't an issue for Mills Godwin, Henrico County or even officials with the Virginia High School League.

The National Federation of High Schools sets the rules and regulations for sports nationwide, and it takes their girls lacrosse rules from US Lacrosse. It views the girls' game as being far different from the boys and as such, does not allow girls to wear similar helmets.

Doctor Katherine Dec is with HCA Sports Medicine and is the chairwoman for the sports advisory committee for the Virginia High School League.

She has been reviewing studies on concussions in all sports. In girls' lacrosse specifically, those studies have yet to determine that helmets, such as those worn by boys, would effectively prevent head injuries in the girls' game.

"It's incident contact," Dr. Dec said in describing the difference between the two sports. "It's not as much direct contact as the boys have."

"If we just create helmets that don't have those safety standards addressing the specific skills of that sport, it may not prevent the concussion or the issues we're trying to prevent," Dec explained.

In a statement provided to CBS 6 by Melissa Coyne, the Women's Game Director for US Lacrosse explained the research they have been doing on the topic for the past two years:

“US Lacrosse, in conjunction with ASTM International, is working diligently to develop the first women’s lacrosse specific headgear standard. Both injury type and mechanism of injury in the women’s game differ greatly from the men’s game and therefore we believe it is our responsibility to develop a standard, based on scientific research, for protective headgear specific to the women’s game. It is our intent to continue to allow the optional use of headgear in women’s lacrosse for those players that choose to wear it. We are optimistic that the standard will be approved via the ASTM’s collaborative structure in the near future.”

But would that be in time for Lisa and Lauren to continue their careers? Both girls said they would play again tomorrow, if allowed.

"Most definitely," Harms said. "As long as we have helmets"

If and when those standards are adopted, helmets will still remain optional in the girls' game. And there are many coaches opposed to their use at all, believing they will make the girls' game more aggressive.