Two years ago the Florida High School Athletic Association, or FHSAA, passed a wildly unpopular mandate, requiring girls lacrosse players to wear head gear. The organization said it was responding to concussion risks -- but critics say policy and public perception of risk are getting ahead of the actual data.
For the past two seasons, girls lacrosse players in Florida have had to wear a kind of a thick headband. The FHSAA had required it -- against the recommendations of the national lacrosse organization , US Lacrosse, and before performance standards had been created for the gear.
Other states don't require any head gear -- including states such as Virginia, which have well established programs. The sport is a relative newcomer in Florida, and some coaches and athletes say the FHSAA's head gear decision indicates an unfamiliarity with the sport.
"I'm not trying to be petty about it, but they're definitely unattractive," said Delaney Turton, a junior at Plant High School in Tampa who plays attack on the girls varsity lacrosse team. "So, I know for a lot of girls looking to try a new sport, it might turn some people away just out of embarrassment, and it does slow down the growth of the game, which is sad."
Plant senior midfielder Madi McGonnigal agrees.
"We were already trying to gain respect as a sport. We just became varsity three years ago. The boys were just starting to respect us, and other states were starting to respect us, and the headband thing put a damper on it," she said.
McGonnigal added that in her experience, girls tended to play more aggressively, and come closer to hitting with their stick, when they relied on the headgear to protect themselves and other players.
FHSAA officials say the implementation was approved as an additional safety measure to reduce head injuries, not necessarily concussions. That's good, because they won't, says Dr. Gillian Hotz, director of the University of Miami's concussion program in sports medicine.
"No helmet prevents concussion," Hotz said. "It's acceleration-deceleration. It's a back and forth [motion]. So these cap-like helmet covers, that they're thinking of for the women's lacrosse, I just don't think they'll be effective at all."
Hotz said policy decisions such as the FHSAA decision on girls lacrosse are a knee-jerk reaction to public anxiety, before the scientific evidence has come in. Scientists say without good studies, it's impossible to judge the risk of concussion or of long term health problems, and know whether it's worth changing the culture of an established girls sport.
Dave Cassidy is Professor of Epidemiology at the University of Toronto in Canada, and has studied the existing scientific literature on concussion. He said data are lacking, and that any calculation of concussion risk had to be balanced with the benefits of youth sports in an age of rampant obesity and inactivity.
"I think there's a lot of interest in this now," Cassidy said, "and hopefully we're going to see more and more studies -- hopefully, good quality studies -- because right now we don't know the risk. But it's been publicized a lot."
Hotz said all the publicity may be causing some over-reaction. Problems with professional athletes and concussion, such as highlighted in the recent movie "Concussion," she said, can not be applied to youth sports.
"We've got to bring the pendulum back," she said. "There has been some hysteria with the movie and other things, but I think we have to bring the pendulum back."
Hotz said it is known that multiple hits to the head can cause problems, especially to a young person with a developing brain. But the best way to prevent those concussive hits, she says, is by educating everyone -- players, parents, coaches and refs -- about how to play more safely.
Plant High School girls lacrosse Coach Jayne Chapman said US Lacrosse has been working hard to educate everyone involved about concussion prevention and treatment.
"If your players are hacking away and consistently coming close to people's heads, that's where the education process is more important than the gear part of it," Chapman said.
Girls lacrosse, she said, is a completely different sport than the boys, who wear hard helmets and pads. It is about finesse and precision, not physical contact.
"The concern is if you start equipping the girls with the same protective gear as the boys, then you are giving them license to play a sport that is not girls lacrosse," she said.
US Lacrosse has issued new performance standards, and the new headgear will have to cover the head like a cap. It will be optional for other states, but Florida's girls lacrosse teams will start wearing them next spring.