By Michaela Christman and Jael Henry
James Walker ran stride by stride with an opposing player, cleats piercing through the turf and echoes of ‘ball down’ ringing through his helmet. It was a routine lacrosse play; use your body to fend off the defender and bend your knees to give yourself positioning to scoop up the ground ball, but the play didn’t go routinely as it did in practice. A second defender came in with a hit that Walker, 16 years old at the time, didn’t see coming and all 175 pounds of the sophomore midfielder was laid out on the ground.
“Concussions are nothing to joke about,” Walker said.
There are two main causes of concussions in lacrosse: player-to-player contact and stick or ball contact.
A study conducted by researchers at the Medstar Sports Medicine Research Center in Baltimore found that all lacrosse concussions (34) in their study resulted from player-to-player contact. Officials are currently working to decrease the risk of concussions from head-to-ball contact.
The National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment and United States Lacrosse are now working on devising a plan to make the standard balls, one of the causes of concussions in lacrosse, safer.
“We’re currently drafting a [proposal] that will change the ball standard to make it more compressed so the ball has less impact when it hits the goalie. It will be significantly safer,” Dr. Bruce Griffin, Director of Health and Sports Safety at US Lacrosse, said.
The proposal will be looked at in November 2016 and will be put into action November 2017 if it receives approval. “The proposal will change the ball standard from 110-210 to 115-150,” Griffin said.
“One of the major causes of concussions seems to be when players collide instead of being hit with the ball or with a stick,” Andrew Stull, an Assistant Athletic Trainer for men’s lacrosse at Stony Brook University, said. “The other risks include things that we try to limit such as dangerous play.”
“The reality is we can’t predict who will get a concussion. We have to do everything we can to be ready for when they do get hurt,” he added.
The focus shouldn’t be on after players get hurt but the steps that can be taken before to prevent it, Griffin said. “There’s three pieces to the puzzle; coach and official education, making sure you play by age appropriate rules and ensuring that equipment is up to date,” he said.
“Coaches shouldn’t high five a kid after he makes a blind sided hit, they should encourage the right techniques,” Griffin added.
Barbara-Jean Ercolino, an Associate Athletic Trainer who covers women’s lacrosse, agrees with Griffin.
“Instructing athletes on proper technique and wearing the appropriate safety equipment are key in keeping injuries low – this includes wearing a high quality mouth guard to help protect the teeth and absorb shock from any impacts to the head,” Ercolino said.
In a recent investigation released by the New York Times, the paper revealed that the NFL skewed their concussion research and statistics and had omitted more than 10 percent of the total concussions reported over the last 13 years from their studies.
Lacrosse is at the top of the list with football and soccer when it comes to sports-related concussions among teens.
“It’s just the size of the sports,” Griffin said. “The NFL gets more coverage than the MLL, it’s based off popularity and the news media.”
Approximately 1.6 to 3.8 million sports- and recreation-related concussions occur each year in the United States, and children and teens are at highest risk, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Despite the high number of concussions and head injuries in lacrosse, some officials argue that positives should not be overlooked.
“There’s risk but [teens] also learn teamwork and sportsmanship and other things that will benefit them down the line,” Griffin said.
In 2010, United States Lacrosse teamed up with the National Football League and the Center for Disease and Control Prevention to educate individuals on concussions.
Even though Walker knows more about concussions and their risks, he hasn’t been scared away from the game.
“I play intramural lacrosse now on the weekends and I hope I never have to go through that [concussions] again. It’s scary,” Walker said.