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William A. McComas: State has a duty to protect youth, including female lacrosse players

Opposition to the recently proposed Maryland legislation regarding the adoption of protective head gear in girls’ youth lacrosse is founded on two familiar biases — one concerning gender and the other the role of state government.

When Delegates Dana Stein and Jon Cardin introduced a bill that would, in effect, mandate the use of helmets in girls’ youth lacrosse, the ruling class of the sport complained that the bill would destroy the integrity of the game, with their emphasis on the adult level of the sport, which is outside the scope of the bill. While boys’ lacrosse is rough, aggressive and combative, girls’ youth lacrosse, some opponents insist, is or should be graceful and elegant. Thus, while it makes sense for the boys to wear helmets, girls don’t or shouldn’t need them, if the rules are observed.

Those who hold this notion seem not to appreciate that young girls can be just as rough as young boys on the field of play. Despite age-old gender biases, our culture does much to teach girls that it is OK to be aggressive and play sports at the same competitive level as do boys. Long gone are the days when girls play sports in little dresses and Mary Janes.

Today, for example, the shot from a young girl’s stick is traveling faster than it did 10, 20 or 30 years ago. Furthermore, advances in stick technology have increased the risk of injury because they enable greater control of the ball. As a result, we see rougher dodging and cutting and harder shots and passes and more aggressive stick checking in an effort to dislodge the ball.

Yet youth lacrosse leagues are still for the inexperienced. No one disputes that inexperienced players make wild swings, shoot recklessly and collide violently with other players. While referees do provide a check against such play during games, they are not present during practices, which are often supervised by volunteer parents, many of whom have little experience themselves and aren’t familiar with the rules.

The simple truth is that young girls, like boys, get hurt when they play lacrosse. Not infrequently, they get head and face injuries, including concussions.

Opponents may agree but still oppose the legislation on the grounds that the government should not regulate youth sports. Lacrosse can take care of itself, they say. Don’t our legislators have more important things to do — such as fix the economy — than worry about whether young girls should wear protective head gear when they play lacrosse?

Framed that way, the legislation appears to be a simple matter of government overreach. The truth is more complicated.

The claim that youth girls’ lacrosse can “take care of itself” does not reflect reality. The principle governing bodies do not have jurisdiction over girls’ youth lacrosse. While boys have been wearing helmets for decades, our young girls remain exposed.

The problem is worthy of legislators’ attention. Protecting the young and vulnerable is one of government’s primary functions. Certainly, legislators have other concerns, but passing a simple bill regarding youth sports will not prevent Annapolis from attending to these larger issues. The “don’t-they-have-better-things-to-do” argument is a common but simple-minded gripe.

The safety of our child athletes was obviously a priority in the 2011 legislative cycle, when the legislators passed bills that now apply to all youth sports in the state. Under this new legislation, the state, through the departments of recreation/education, effectively withholds public property (i.e., field and gym) permits from recreation councils unless they provide concussion awareness training for coaches, players and parents in youth sports. In addition, coaches must take certain measures to prevent head injuries (including concussions), or else they may be exposed to personal liability when they fail to comply with the law. These requirements are now being rolled out at the recreation levels as this article is published.

Thus, there is precedent for the legislature involving itself in youth sports. The 2011 laws will help protect child athletes, but young girls playing youth lacrosse in Maryland remain too vulnerable. It is only a matter of time before a girl’s life is forever changed by a catastrophic head or face injury.

As a volunteer coach, in my unofficial research of tracking four youth girls’ lacrosse teams from last year, I noted a handful of severe head and face injuries, including several concussions, after which 75 percent of the injured girls were out for several weeks. I asked myself: Why did the ruling class of lacrosse encourage mouth pieces and goggles in 2005 at the youth and adult levels? Why not protect the rest of the head and face? Surely, if the ball, body and stick are moving fast enough to hurt an eye, aren’t they also moving fast enough to injure the other parts of the head and face, including causing concussions?

I applaud any attempts to make youth girls’ lacrosse a safer game. Make it safe for the young girls and let the referees enforce the rules to keep it “elegant” by today’s standards rather than yesteryear’s. Like boys, young girls playing the sport deserve the protection of protective head gear, and the state has an interest on insisting that they receive it.

William A. McComas, a partner at Shapiro Sher Guinot & Sandler, can be reached at