March 22, 2011

Sheehan Stanwick Burch: Physical Brand of Game Must Go, or Helmets and Pads are Next

by Sheehan Stanwick Burch | LaxMagazine.com


The Northwestern-North Carolina game Feb. 25 featured nearly 70 fouls and nine yellow cards, the kind of game that will have proponents of helmets and pads clamoring.

Here we are now, a third of the way into the 2011 college women's lacrosse season, and it has been an exciting year so far. Many people have been surprised by the early successes of Loyola, Stanford and Florida. However, as much as things change, they tend to stay the same. Again, Northwestern and Maryland look to continue their domination of the sport.

There is one issue, however, that has been constant in most, if not all, of the games thus far -- the increased physical play.

Women's lacrosse is a non-contact sport. This may be hard to believe if you've watched a game this season. As a former player, official and a fan, I find the roughness in the game, and sometimes blatant disregard for the rules, to be extremely concerning. I understand that, as athletes become bigger, stronger and faster, the unintended consequences of this increased athleticism may be the rough play we've seen in the sport. (See the Northwestern-UNC game earlier this season – almost 70 fouls and nine yellow cards.)

However, unless something changes in the way the game is played and officiated, the future of the sport may include helmets.

An easy target when it comes to the physicality of the women's game is cross-checking. From an officiating standpoint, the Women's Rules Committee has identified cross-checking as a major foul, and it generally occurs when a player uses the shaft of the crosse to hit, push or displace an opponent. On paper, this seems to be an easy rule to enforce. However, officials also have an obligation to allow a scoring play to continue. Therein lies the "grey area" of how the game has been played in recent years.

You will often see an attacker in the critical scoring area get pummeled as she drives to the cage. Does the official make the call, or does she allow the potential scoring play to continue? It's an easy call to make when a player loses her footing due to a cross-check. However, it is more difficult as the players "muscle" through the check and take the beating.

I really feel that the players themselves have to rein in their play and take control, but what incentive do they have to do that. When I played 10 years ago, if an offensive player was fouled going to goal, the yellow flag was thrown; however, she could continue the play and still get a shot off. If the offensive player missed the shot, she was given a free position shot. It was almost as if you got a "freebie."

Under the current rules, if an offensive player is fouled, and she decides to continue the scoring play, there is no longer that freebie. If the player takes a shot and misses, as long as the foul did not directly affect the shot, no free position is awarded and the flag is put away. This encourages rougher play by the defense.

I don't think the rules will revert back to their former version, which is unfortunate because they helped discourage some of the rough play (and generally made for a more exciting brand of lacrosse). As a result, the onus is now on the officials to manage the offending conduct instead of the players and coaches.

One thing that may not always be apparent is that, as much coaches complain to refs, they really want the calls to be made and they want the game to be safe. Kirsten Kimel, head coach of Duke University, told me earlier this year that she likes to see the whistle blown when there is a foul, because it forces the players and coaches to adjust.

It is a crucial time in our sport, where the potential of helmets and pads in the game is real. It is everyone's responsibility to play by the rules.


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