Should girls’ lacrosse require headgear? This NJ dad was so adamant he designed a helmet

Burlington County Times (Burlington County, NJ)

August 1, 2022

It all started for Rob Stolker eight years ago, when his two youngest daughters, then just 8 and 10, asked to play lacrosse. An avid sports fan and former athlete, Stolker was so ecstatic that he volunteered to help coach their team — even though he knew nothing about the sport.

That excitement quickly faded when he showed up to his daughters’ first practice.

“I just instantly couldn’t believe what I saw,” he said. “The boys were on one field wearing big hard helmets on their heads. The girls were on another wearing nothing. I asked, ‘Why?’” He said he received a “matter-of-fact” answer: “‘Girls don’t wear helmets. They don’t need them.’”

That didn’t sit well with Stolker, and his daughters never played.

But that experience also drove the Holmdel resident to design one of the only models of protective headgear for girls’ lacrosse currently on the market. And Stolker continues to advocate for a headgear mandate for girls’ lacrosse to teams, oversight boards — and anyone who will listen.

Lacrosse is one of the fastest-growing sports in America. A 2018 report from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association found that 1.1 million boys and girls were playing the sport at the youth level, a 25% jump since 2012. And the NCAA said that between 2003 and 2018, participation at the Division I level grew 61% for men and 97% for women.

As lacrosse continues to grow — with record investment from such organizations as ESPN and Athletes Unlimited — new challenges emerge, such as how to reduce the risk of concussion for female players, a hotly debated subject.

There is no universal mandate by USA Lacrosse, the sport’s national governing body, for female players to wear headgear. Instead, it allows the protective equipment to be used if it meets a specific standard set by the organization. Yet a growing number of stakeholders, including high school coaches and high school state associations along the East Coast, have begun to mandate the protective equipment for female players where they have the authority to do so.

Because of the contact involved, boys and men who play lacrosse have long been required to wear hard-shell helmets. The girls’ game generally forbids contact, and that distinction matters when the rules of the game are implemented, said Ann Carpenetti, USA Lacrosse’s vice president for national teams, safety and high performance.

“Men’s lacrosse is a collision sport, where it’s allowable to make contact to dislodge the ball [or] move the ball down the field,” Carpenetti said. “In the women’s game, the contact is more incidental. Therefore, the types of injuries [and] the mechanics of the injuries that we see in both versions of the game are different — and then the rules that are in place to address player safety, as well, are different.”

That’s why girls across the country frequently play without protective headgear. Players who want to wear headgear can, so long as their equipment meets a safety standard developed by USA Lacrosse in 2015. Only two manufacturers, Hummingbird Sports, founded by Stolker in New Jersey, and Cascade, the leading maker of boys’ helmets, have produced headgear to meet that standard.

As more female players started to use headgear, they chose a range of equipment, from headbands to Taekwondo-style protection. The latter could be dangerous if a player with protection collided with another without it.

That prompted USA Lacrosse to develop a specific safety standard for female players’ headgear, Carpenetti said.

“We wanted to get rid of the ambiguity, and provide a meaningful standard that, if players wanted additional protection, they could pursue,” Carpenetti said. Players and parents could make those decisions “knowing that the product was developed to address a very specific type of mechanism of injury, and that was designed specifically for women in women’s lacrosse.”

59% higher concussion rate

The standard was introduced after the Florida High School Athletic Association became the first state association to require high school girls’ lacrosse players to wear helmets. The rule was adopted in 2014. A recent University of Florida study, funded in part by USA Lacrosse and the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment, has since studied the efficacy of the headgear protection in the state.

Girls who play the sport in states that don’t require headgear had a 59% higher concussion rate than players in Florida, which remains the only state with a headgear mandate, the landmark study found. The study included data from more than 350,000 games and practices in Florida and other states during three seasons, from 2018 to 2021. The findings were released in October.

Those in favor of protective headgear in girls’ lacrosse point to these findings as proof that mandating the equipment is a logical step. USA Lacrosse, however, cautions that more research needs to be done.

USA Lacrosse, which oversees virtually all aspects of the sport, works with the NCAA and the National Federation of State High School Associations to oversee the rules of the game across all levels. The groups meet annually to discuss possible rule changes.

The Florida study “did not yield the kind of immediate results” that would have caused any of the oversight groups to change the rule immediately, Carpenetti said. But she said USA Lacrosse is committed to working with the researchers and the other sports oversight groups “to continue to figure out what additional questions need to be addressed through research and use that information to advise us on policy and rules.”

“There’s always the potential for rules to evolve and change based on how the data shakes out,” Carpenetti said. “We’re all willing and ready to make decisions that are based around what’s best for the athlete.”

In the meantime, individual youth leagues or state associations are changing the rules of the game at a grassroots level. In Connecticut this year, the Stonington girls’ lacrosse team, coached by Jeff Medeiros, became the first high school lacrosse team in that state to mandate protective helmets.

Many state associations, however, continue to look to national organizations for overall guidance.

The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association oversees high school sports in the Garden State. It has not considered mandating the use of helmets in girls’ lacrosse “as it continues to follow all NFHS rules and related guidance, which is consistent for all sports it sanctions,” spokesperson Mike Cherenson said.

In recent years, Stolker, the New Jersey headgear manufacturer, has met with different state associations advocating that protective headgear be mandated — including, he said, to the NJSIAA.

For Stolker, this work has become personal, even as he has lost “a ton of money” in his pursuit. The serial entrepreneur wrote a book about his journey and has joined forces with other advocates nationwide through such organizations as the Brain Safety Alliance. He has met lacrosse players who suffered concussions, and whose stories inspired him.

Female players and their families have also reached out to him, Stolker said. “This is now my life’s work. Other businesses that I do and continue to do, it doesn’t mean anything,” he said. “This is a real mission and a battle.”

Though change may be slow, he is certain that helmets will eventually be mandated for female lacrosse players. “I wouldn’t be doing this,” he said, “if I didn’t believe that.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Equipment Standards News

View All