Lacrosse is among the nation’s fastest-growing youth sports, especially among boys whose parents are looking for a safer alternative to football. But the sport found itself in the continuing conversation about concussions after two popular lacrosse helmets were deemed unsuitable for play by the same standard-setting body that certifies football helmets.
The National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment recently voided certification of the Warrior Regulator and the Cascade Model R — helmets worn by tens of thousands of players ranging from grade school age to those on top N.C.A.A. teams. The makers of the helmets have stopped short of issuing a recall and said they were working with the standards committee on a way to retrofit the helmets to meet its standards.
This has caused parents and coaches across all levels of the sport to reconsider everything from the safety of lacrosse to their holiday shopping lists.
“It’s a huge moment,” said Steve Stenersen, the chief executive of U.S. Lacrosse. “It’s a real disappointment for everyone involved. It’s a disappointment for the companies trying to make it right and for the players, because there are probably thousands of those units being worn. But when it’s safety with player equipment, you can’t take any chances.”
In the 2013-14 academic year, 188,689 boys and girls played lacrosse at the high school level, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations, nearly double the number from a decade ago. The manufacturing of lacrosse-related goods has become big business, with sales of lacrosse equipment surging to $80 million last year, up from $59 million in 2008, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.
For years, safety concerns about lacrosse focused on lacerations, lower extremity injuries and chest hits. Among spring sports in 2012, lacrosse, along with baseball and track and field, accounted for the greatest proportion of direct injuries at both the college and high school levels, according to the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Those researchers also found that in the past 13 years, there have been six lacrosse deaths — three in high school and three in college.
The concern over lacrosse helmets echoes similar issues over the safety of football helmets. In the 1960s, helmet makers improved their football helmets to reduce the number of skull fractures. In 1969, a year after 32 deaths were reported from head and neck injuries, Nocsae was created to find ways to reduce injuries. Thanks to pressure on helmet manufacturers, the number of skull fractures dropped dramatically.
But the focus on concussions has shined an uncomfortable light on helmet manufacturers again. Some Nocsae licensees have gotten into trouble for claiming that their helmets can reduce concussions.
The helmet manufacturers have also had to defend themselves in court, where they have been sued for negligence and fraud. Riddell, the country’s largest helmet maker and a former N.F.L. sponsor, was named as a defendant, along with the N.F.L., by about 5,000 retired players, who argued they were misled about the dangers of concussions. The league is in the process of settling with the players, while Riddell has said it should be excluded from the suit.
Concussion concerns in lacrosse — a sport where female participants at the junior and collegiate levels don’t even wear helmets — led to equipment tests by independent researchers. Last year, researchers at Purdue University did drop-test comparisons of 36 football and lacrosse helmets. While the football helmets met Nocsae standards, nine lacrosse helmets that were on the market at the time failed.