Lacrosse was born a violent sport.
Native Americans were the first to engage in contests resembling lacrosse matches. The Cherokee were known to refer to the sport as “the little brother of war.” Indeed, some early matches involved hundreds or even thousands of participants playing on a massive open field. With so many players and only one ball, violence using the sticks was endemic.
Much of this heritage is retained in the men’s game today. Players wear helmets, thick gloves, shoulder pads, arm pads and elbow pads. Contact is encouraged and imposing one’s physicality on the opposing team is at least as important as speed and skill.
Women’s lacrosse is essentially a different sport.
Body checking — or any form of purposeful player-on-player contact — is not permitted. The only required pieces of protective equipment are a small cage to protect the eyes and a mouthguard.
At Penn’s game against Northwestern Sunday afternoon at Franklin Field, one parent who was frustrated at a non-call by the referees said to no one in particular, “You shouldn’t be knocked off your feet in this game! That’s got to be a call!”
Some sources suggest that men’s lacrosse was modeled after ice hockey, while women’s lacrosse is more modeled after field hockey. This comparison seems an accurate one.
Stick checks (using the stick to hit the stick of an opposing player) are allowed in the women’s game but are difficult to execute without committing a penalty.
The main effect of the stringent anti-contact rules is that legally dispossessing a player of the ball is quite difficult. Such was the case for the Quakers against Northwestern.
One important concept of women’s lacrosse is “the sphere.” The sphere is the area surrounding a player’s head. A defensive player is not permitted to put her stick (also called a crosse) in the sphere of an offensive player. However, in order to try a stick check, players usually have to go through the sphere, as the player with the ball generally cradles it high and near her head.
It’s no surprise then that the success rate on trying to execute a legal stick check is quite low.
As concussions suffered in sporting events have begun to receive more publicity, rules have been implemented to increase the safety of the game. The burden of these new rules falls squarely on defensive players, as well as referees to call even minor violations.
For Penn women’s lacrosse, the concussion issue strikes close to home. Multiple players, including junior Maddie Poplawski, have suffered concussions this season and missed time as a result.
Some have proposed that women be required to wear helmets to minimize the risk of brain injuries. Traditionalists have pushed back, alleging that the game would be changed in the wrong direction with the introduction of helmets.
Would women’s lacrosse necessarily become more violent if helmets were required? It’s certainly possible.
If concussion risk could be reduced, would a little more contact necessarily be a bad thing? Women’s lacrosse would certainly be getting back to its roots.