The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT)
Is it time to mandate helmets in girls lacrosse?
Only one team in Connecticut currently wears them
The sound was unforgettable.
The Stonington girls lacrosse team was practicing for its 2018 ECC championship game against East Lyme, when a shot hit then-sophomore Kate Reagan, one of the team's top defenders, in the head.
Coach Jeff Medeiros clearly remembers the moment.
“It was bad,” Medeiros said. “It sounded bad, it was real bad, and she was done. She didn't play for the rest of the season and she actually didn't go back to school (that year).”
What followed in the days and months ahead was a series of steps which led Stonington to become the first, and still only, high school girls lacrosse team in Connecticut to wear protective helmets.
As it turns out, the Bears may have been ahead of the curve.
A three-year study, conducted by researchers from UC Davis and the USA Lacrosse sports Science and Safety Committee found concussion rates among
girls lacrosse players not wearing protective headgear was 59% higher than those who wore the headgear. That rate increased to 74% when focused on games only and practices were excluded.
The study tracked teams from Florida, which mandated protective head gear in 2015, and teams from states which do not require the head gear, and included nearly 300 school seasons, and more than 350,000 athlete exposures, defined as one athlete participating in a practice or a game.
US Lacrosse and the National Federation of State High School Associations, as well as the CIAC, which oversees high school athletics in Connecticut, do not require helmets in girls lacrosse, instead leaving them as optional for every position but goalie. Goggles to protect the eyes are required.
While girls lacrosse, by its rules, includes less physical contact than the boys' version of the sport — which does mandate helmets — there are still hazards, including stick checks and shots.
“Unless you take checking out of the game, there are going to be checks around the head,” Medeiros said. “And the ball is a hard rubber ball moving at 60 to 70 mph. It's almost stupidity not to wear the helmets in this game.”
Might changes be coming to the sport as a whole in Connecticut?
“We have conversations continually with our sports med advisory committee on the safety of all sports,” said CIAC executive director Glenn Lungarini. “In particular to head gear in lacrosse, I know it's something that the NFHS is taking a look at as well.
“In a number of sports where head gear is optional, the NFHS has tried to collect some data and look at what would be most appropriate in terms of recommendations. We stay up to date with the research and opinions coming from those reviews.”
To Reagan, who is now a sophomore at High Point College in North Carolina, Stonington's decision to wear helmets is logical. The concussion she suffered in 2018 was her second — both occurred in the same spot — and the effects were longlasting.
“You have these balls that are flying and if I had a helmet those two times, I probably wouldn't have had a concussion,” Reagan said. “The goggles we're supposed to wear don't cover the most important part of your body, which is your brain. Talking to (coach Medeiros), he said that (since 2019) girls have gotten balls to the head but they hadn't gotten concussions because of the helmets.”
It didn't take Medeiros and the Bears long to turn to helmets following Reagan's concussion. They won the ECC title the day after she was injured, and got through the first round of the Class S playoffs before being eliminated by East Catholic in the quarterfinals.
The bus ride home was about an hour and during that time, Medeiros and his players talked about wearing head gear starting the next year.
“I sat with the girls and said she's going to have to get a helmet the next year and I believe that helmets are coming, sooner or later,” Medeiros said. “Wouldn't it be great as a team, if we all got helmets to support her? Eventually, I believe, we're all going to have to wear one anyway.”
There was also an added benefit beyond safety.
“This is going to unify us because we're the only team with helmets,” the coach said. “And it did.”
The Bears raised $3,500 during the offseason and purchased 30 Cascadebrand helmets.
The players, including Reagan, were there for the first day of practice, but Reagan then made the decision to step away from the sport.
“Being in that environment where there were lacrosse balls flying everywhere, even with my helmet, I did not feel the same,” Reagan said. “I didn't feel right, which is heartbreaking because I love lacrosse. I didn't think it was in my best interest because of the severity of my concussions. I've always been an athlete and that was my whole identity. Throughout my whole life, I would play so many sports.
“When I was bed-ridden after I had the concussion, that was stripped away.”
The team stayed with the plan to wear the helmets, and Medeiros pointed out that there is an “acclimation period.” Some players complained of headaches early on, and freshmen each year have to adjust, but eventually, the team has embraced the idea and it became a source of pride.
Additionally, Medeiros said, the quality of play was unaffected.
“We ended up going to the state championship (in 2019),” Medeiros said.
“We went the whole way, played 21 games and we had a phenomenal season. So the helmets did not affect us at all. We played our best lacrosse.”
The most common concern about mandating helmets has to do with what they could possibly mean to the style of play. Now better protected, would players feel invincible and thus be more aggressive and reckless on the field?
“I understand people wanting to be safe,” Cheshire coach Dan Warburton said. “One of the concerns is that by adding helmets you're going to increase the physicality and the likelihood of things like concussions because people won't worry as much about swinging and checking because they have protection.
“Right now, any player can wear them. It's the player's choice. There's no restriction to keep a kid from wearing one if they want that added protection.”
Several Connecticut high school coaches said they worried about increased risk-taking, but acknowledged the benefits head gear might have in concussion reduction.
“I do think that the kids would get more aggressive than they already are and obviously that's one of the concerns about putting head gear on,” New Canaan coach Kristin Woods said. “The goggles do a really good job protecting the eyes, but obviously the head gear might help protect against concussions.”
Wilton coach Meredith Meyran said the greater risk-taking is a concern “and can lead to more aggressive play, which isn't really something that anybody wants.
But if studies are showing that there's an added level of protection, then that's something to be considered because the safety of our athletes is of the utmost importance.
“It's a pretty small adjustment if it does have a positive impact on the rate of concussion.”
The recent research study found that headgear “may not be associated with risk compensatory behavior.”
A study which was published in The Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine in early 2021 also suggested headgear may not lead to increased risk-taking.
“Our findings suggest that anecdotal concerns about headgear causing a ‘gladiator effect' may not translate to game play,” Dr. Shane Caswell of George Mason University told USA Lacrosse Magazine.
For Reagan, the aftereffects from two concussions were not something that can be “fixed overnight.” She had to take medications to help with depression and a lack of focus, all of which started her junior year in high school, after the second concussion.
“The way I work is not the same,” Reagan said. “I don't have the natural enthusiasm for some things, but it's definitely coming back.”
Her advice to players? “Wear the helmet,” Reagan said. “Girls lacrosse is aggressive in nature, whether you have a helmet or not. I think the helmet is not promoting more intense play, it's further protecting you from the inevitable roughness of the game.”
She has gotten back into the sport, coaching lacrosse at the youth league level.
Medeiros and Reagan have made helmets a topic of discussion for those teams, although so far they have not been added.
“It doesn't make sense to me,” Reagan said. “Those are brains that are still developing and are the most vulnerable to injuries like that. I hope in the future we can push for a state-wide mandate because we are the only team that has helmets, which is kind of strange.”
As for Stonington, helmets are now part of the game.
“I'm never turning back,” Medeiros said. “At this point, we're all-in. I've seen absolute success from it, the girls have totally bought into it, and the parents are happy I've done it. The girls feel safer with the helmets, they're comfortable in them, and they've grown to appreciate them.”