As the Sport of Lacrosse Continues to Grow, have some of the Sports’ Leading Equipment Manufacturers Misrepresented the Safety of their Equipment?

Apr 14, 2017

By Dan Ballou
In today’s sport era, heightened levels of research and medical attention have been focused on head trauma and concussions in contact sports. Much of this attention has been focused, and deservedly so, on the game of football, which is arguably the most popular American sport at levels ranging from the very young to the highest level of professional athletes.
Because of this level of increased scrutiny, equipment manufacturers are continually searching for processes to develop new and safer products, as well as making changes to existing product lines. As one of the fastest growing sports in terms of participation, men’s lacrosse is a contact sport where helmets are required and the safety of these helmets has been a source of recent litigation.
In the class-action lawsuit, the plaintiffs (Lindsey Held and Matthew Hemberger, et al. v. Performance Lacrosse Group Inc., Case No. 3:14-cv-01842-WIG, in the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut) alleged that Performance Lacrosse Group, Inc., parent company for the Cascade brand of lacrosse equipment, and specifically the Cascade Model R helmet, was sold under the premise that the helmet was approved by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE). In all actuality, NOCSAE had voided approval on the helmet, but it was still sold as if it had approval. Part of the confusion in this case was tied to tests that the helmet had originally passed, but after other required variables were added, the helmet later failed.
NOCSAE depends on all equipment manufacturers to self-test their products to deem that they meet safety standards. NOCSAE does not necessarily check this equipment prior to allowing its stamp of approval to be adhered to the equipment. NOCSAE’s role is to issue standard guidelines that equipment manufacturers sign licensing agreements with stating that equipment will meet those safety standards as published (Pilon, 2014). The internal test results are required by NOCSAE to be kept for at least 10 years and made available upon request by the safety standards committee.
What made this case even more intriguing was that NOCSAE only became aware of issues related to the Cascade Model R helmet because another equipment company, STX, reported the helmet to NOCSAE just days before STX released its own new helmet.
This issue with the Cascade helmet was that as temperatures increased, the helmets became more unsafe. The Model R helmet passed on the NOCSAE standards for temperatures below 72 degrees, but as the temperature rose above 72, the helmet failed the industry-standard tests. One of the tests that the helmet failed was the “drop test” at temperatures above 72 degrees. Components within the overall design of the helmet were failing, and the consequences for increased risk of traumatic head injury could have been substantial had the failed tests not been reported. As a spring sport, temperatures in parts of the country surpass 72 degrees in the spring, and soar to much higher temperatures as the summer season is played. Fortunately in this case, damages were confined to economic reasons as the defect in these helmets was discovered before serious injury occurred.
The uproar over the safety of lacrosse helmets runs a parallel path to concerns related to safety issues of football helmets. The number of deaths in football starting in the 1960’s led to the creation of NOCSAE and its purpose was to investigate and research helmets and ways to make them safer related to skull fractures (Pilon, 2014).
This specific class action lawsuit claimed misrepresentation and was filed for economic reasons. The complaint stated that economic suffering occurred because many universities, colleges, high schools, and youth leagues purchased the helmets secure in the knowledge that they were NOCSAE safety certified. Once it was determined that NOCSAE standards were not met, the plaintiffs claimed other helmets would have been purchased. Each helmet retails at costs between $200 — 250, and industry experts have predicted that Cascade’s share may be as high as 90%, providing evidence that the financial aspect was significant.
Cascade’s defense rested on a massive return and retrofit program, which NOCSAE approved, and which modified the helmets to meet NOCSAE safety standards. The case was settled in May, 2016 as Performance Lacrosse Group denied the misrepresentation allegations, but agreed on the return and retrofit policy accepted by the court (Bucher, 2016). In exchange for agreeing to the return and retrofit program, customers received vouchers for future purchases of Cascade products and with that, gave up any rights to sue over this particular case in the future.
The take home message in this case that is of great value to professionals in the field, and students aspiring for athletic careers, is to conduct extensive research on equipment and manufacturers, especially with the medical information available with ongoing studies on head injuries suffered in sporting contests. Clearly a stamp on a helmet or other protective gear, does not guarantee that the equipment has met all the necessary safety requirements, or has undergone an entire series of tests to ensure compliance with NOCSAE standards. Had this helmet not been turned in to NOCSAE as failing standard equipment testing, lacrosse athletes at a variety of levels may have seen increased potential for traumatic head injuries that medical and industry experts are working diligently toward reducing.
Leagues, educational institutions, and even individuals would be well-served to directly contact equipment manufacturers prior to making final purchases. Most often, equipment orders are processed in large volume and time should be taken to contact the manufacturers to obtain test results prior to finalizing a purchasing agreement. If manufacturers are not readily forthcoming with this information, other options should be explored and league officials, collegiate governing bodies, national governing bodies, and NOCSAE itself should be notified if a manufacturer isn’t willing to provide this information.
As more information is made available related to the short-term sustaining of concussions, and the long-term impacts resulting from them, the injuries caused by the nature of the sports themselves while using safety certified equipment is enough of a concern already. When equipment companies don’t comply with safety standards due to lack of quality control in safety checks, an already severe situation could potentially turn catastrophic.
Bucher, A. (2016, October 7). Cascade lacrosse helmet class action settlement. Top Class Location: Phoenix.
Pilon, M. (2014, December 6). After 2 helmets are decertified, lacrosse faces safety concerns. The New York Times, P. D1.
Dan Ballou, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor in the Sport Management program at Central Michigan University. Ballou has spent more than 25 years in the athletics industry, working in collegiate athletics at Kansas State University. He spent 17 years as the Director of Sports Marketing for the Albuquerque (NM) Convention & Visitors Bureau, where he brought and managed hundreds of sports events to the city, including many rounds of NCAA Championship and USOC National Championship events.


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