by Gina McKlveen
Undoubtably, female lacrosse players ought to be just as protected as the men. But right now, according to a group of attorneys conducting an investigation into the NCAA, this equal protection is questionable.
Current NCAA guidelines prohibit the use of protective helmets in women’s lacrosse because the sport is defined as a “non-contact” for the women. Meanwhile, the NCAA requires the use of a full protective helmet in men’s lacrosse because it is considered a “full-contact” sport for the men.
Given this discrepancy, attorneys from Milberg Coleman Bryson Phillips Grossman, LLP, a leading class action law firm, are launching an investigation into whether the NCAA put female lacrosse players at risk for concussions. The firm is working alongside Public Justice, a national nonprofit organization that confronts discriminatory systems to ensure equal access to justice for all. Last month, ClassAction.org, an online forum connecting a network of professionals to facilitate class action and mass tort lawsuits, announced that the attorneys are seeking input from women lacrosse players who played for NCAA-governed schools and suffered concussions while playing the sport. Such players are encouraged to fill out the form on ClassAction.org’s website to get in touch with an attorney.
The attorneys conducting the investigation believe that the NCAA’s rules differentiating women’s lacrosse as “non-contact” and men’s lacrosse as “full-contact” are discriminatory and outdated. Some spectators view men’s lacrosse as more closely related to ice hockey, whereas women’s lacrosse resembles field hockey. Essentially, the distinction between the similar sport played by the two sexes is that in men’s lacrosse “body-checking,” or player-on-player contact, is permitted; however, in women’s lacrosse this type of body-checking is strictly prohibited. In fact, according to previous report by USA Lacrosse, a foul will be called in women’s lacrosse if a seven-inch imaginary sphere around the female player’s head is breached. This rule and other penalties attempt to deter the type of hits that lead to major head injuries and brain traumas.
Nevertheless, statistics show that despite technically playing a non-contact sport, female lacrosse players suffer higher rates of head injuries than their male counterparts. A Future Medicine’s Concussion medical journal article from 2017 revealed that women players had a higher rate of head, face, and eye injuries than men with 40% of these injuries being classified as concussions. The article further elaborated that while most of concussions in men’s lacrosse were caused from player-to-player contact, the primary mechanism of head injuries in women’s lacrosse were from stick or ball contact. Stick checking, knocking the ball out of an opposing player’s possession, while limited, is still allowed in women’s lacrosse. So, even though referee rules have been modified to penalize body-checking in women’s lacrosse, these type of rules do not prevent the occasional, and often inevitable albeit accidental, hit to the head by a flying ball or stray stick to the face.
Moreover, the article compares having the proper protective helmets in women’s lacrosse to equipping baseball players with batting helmets or construction workers with hardhats—both of which are designed to prevent head injury caused by objects impacting the head. The same type of lacrosse ball is used in both men’s and women’s lacrosse. This ball is hard, inflexible, and fast moving, designed to be flung from a lacrosse stick at speeds reaching over 100 miles per hour, which has the potential to cause significant injury to any part of the body not properly protected upon impact. Yet, despite the same ball usage and risk of significant head injury, the equipment requirements vary drastically between men’s and women’s lacrosse—a mandatory helmet for the men, but merely protective eyewear and mouthguard for the women.
According to Journal of Cartilage & Joint Preservation journal article published in December 2022, “[a]nother notable difference between men’s and women’s lacrosse is that the head of a women’s lacrosse stick is flat and without a deep pocket…[causing] female players [to] carry the head of the stick close to their heads to increase ball control and prevent defenders from knocking the ball loose…[but] this method of ball handling by female players puts them at a greater risk of sustaining injuries to the head and face.”
Still, some critics of a protective helmet requirement in women’s lacrosse argue that it will have a “gladiator effect” amongst female players, convincing them that a helmet will make them invincible, amplifying aggression over skill in the sport. These same helmet nay-sayers are instead proponents of consistent enforcement of previously established rules by referees and proper education among officials, coaches, and players.
The protective helmet wearing debate takes on additional relevance given that lacrosse is one of the fasting growing sports in the United States. To date, a total of approximately 826,000 individuals participate in the sport from youth to collegiate levels. In women’s lacrosse specifically, there are currently more than 500 active women’s collegiate lacrosse programs across all the NCAA divisions, which has also expanded opportunities for young girls on youth and high school teams. At this growing rate of participation, so too has the rate of injury increased amongst participants, which makes the on-going investigation into protective helmets for female players on NCAA women’s lacrosse teams all the more urgent for future generations.