RULE CHANGES OR GAME CHANGES
By Michael Spinner
If any of you saw the Mets-Yankees game on July 3, you saw a classic but you also saw a potentially tragic moment when Mets' Outfielder Richard Hidalgo was drilled by a pitch directly on the chest area above the heart. After what we saw in the lacrosse world this season, you could almost visualize the tragedy unfold had the circumstances been even slightly different. Had that ball struck Hidalgo at the right time from the right angle the results could have been disastrous. Thankfully, that did not happen.
Seeing Hidalgo being hit by the pitch brought with it a reminder that sports like baseball and lacrosse - where a hard ball is being propelled at a high rate of speed - have an inherent risk that needs to be addressed. This season, the lax community tragically lost Cornell Senior George Boiardi when he was hit in the chest area by a ball. The tragedy brought calls from all over the lacrosse world to examine safety within our sport with the hopes that what happened at Cornell will never happen again. The question is whether or not lacrosse players are being properly protected from blows to the heart when they take the field.
Recently, one of the most prominent figures in the lacrosse world, Steve Stenersen - the Executive Director of US Lacrosse - sent a letter to the NCAA and National Federation of State High School Associations urging a rule change that would penalize players other than the goalie for deliberately stepping in the path of a ball fired at the goal. This letter and possible rule change is going to be the topic of a lot of scrutiny as we are a mere two months from the beginning of Fall practices. After all, we're not dealing with a "rule change," we're dealing with a game change.
This huge change to the game would not even accomplish what it intends to do. It does not insure that tragedy will not happen again. A player stepping in front of a shot may be as likely to suffer from this rare type of injury as any number of players along the path of the ball, standing on the crease, screening or protecting the goal. In Baseball the victims are typically 60 or 90 feet away from the Pitcher. Any of defenders in the ball's path could be hit by the ball and potentially killed, but if they did not deliberately step in front of the shot, the play would still be legal. And what about the goalie who takes shots in the chest gladly if he can't get them with the stick.
This rule change may protect some, but it does not make the game inherently safer. It does not eliminate the risk like innovative protective gear would.
Furthermore, how do we enforce such a rule? A slash is a slash, a push is a push, a cross-check is a cross-check. A defender could be swatting at a fly with his stick, but if he happens to hit an attackman on the helmet, it is a slash (unless it's a brush - but you get the point). When determining a slash, intent is not a part of the equation. However, when determining whether or not a defensive player intentionally stepping in front of a shot, the foundation for the rule is intent. Was the defensive player purposely trying to step in front of the shot? How do we know this? What is the guideline for determining the intent of the defensive player? How does a referee make a split-second decision on the intent of a defensive player without knowing what he was thinking?
Lacrosse Officials are as part-time as part-time gets. They work a couple of times a week, get paid very little, and the training and re-training is not nearly what it should be if we're going to have rules based on intent. And with full-time lacrosse officiating being an unrealistic possibility, the enforcement of this rule is going to be inconsistent to say the least. With the exception of cases where a defender obviously steps in front of a shooter, enforcement is going to be a mess.
For example, a midfielder is sweeping hard right and plants suddenly to get off a shot. The defender does not adjust quickly enough and takes an extra step, but that extra step allows him to block the shot. Did he intentionally step in front of the shot? How do we know? Do we really want a part-time official who probably worked his full-time job for eight hours that day making what could be a key decision at the end of a game based on speculation of intent? I know the officials don't. Will a defender be responsible for getting out of the way when an attacker shoots at his chest intentionally. Isn't that a new penalty we'll have to implement too. Then knowing the intent of the shooter and defender would be key to making good calls. What about man down defense? Sliding to the ball is part of a man-down defensive strategy that is practiced every day. Does this rule change mean that man-down defense is about to change so dramatically that defending an extra-man situation becomes next to impossible? Will a Tierney defense be as field-smothering with every opposing shooter knowing that a defender cannot obstruct his shot.
What would the penalty be for stepping in on a shot to defend the goal? It would have to be a goal for the other team. Any penalty less than a goal, however, would not stop the defenders from stepping in. We see defenders in every sport taking the "good foul" to stop impending points against. Defenders don't just step in all the time. They do it instinctually when the game is on the line or the goal is certain or perhaps the scoring opportunity derived from their mistake. If the penalty for doing so is not equal or greater than the reward, instinctually, all good defenders will still step in. Worse still, we could end up with a penalty shot of some kind. In men's lacrosse a penalty shot would be hazardous for the goalies. If we are concerned with close shots and safety we aught not tee off the goalie with no defenders about. We'd be trading one danger for another.
Proponents of a rule change will say that safety comes first, and I cannot think of anybody who would disagree. In fact, I think it should be the primary focus of the NCAA Rules Committee to make sure that the sport remains fun, but in a manner that is safe for all. If it is safe first, and as safe as it is fun, lacrosse remains lacrosse. However … this rule change does not do the job. The rule does not make the sport substantially safer from another tragedy, but it does change the sport in a way that I think most coaches and players would agree is undesirable.
It's shortsighted, as well. If this rule change goes into effect and either proves to be unenforceable or ineffective, is the next step to legislate unobstructed shooting like we have in Women's Lacrosse? Is the next step a "shooting space" rule? For the men's game, I certainly hope not.
What we need to do before any rule changes are considered is make sure lacrosse players are properly protected. While I do not know what, if any, changes could be made to lacrosse padding to make the game safer, I do think that right now, lacrosse players take the field not padded enough for full protection. Shoulder and arm pads are not enough for those who do stand in front of shots, whether they intended to do so or not. Over the years, the padding has become lighter and less protective, not the other way around. If anything, defensive players are not as protected as they were 10 years ago. And when you think about it, a shot to the throat is probably as dangerous (if not more dangerous) than a shot to the chest, and defensive players are not forced to wear throat guards. So, before we change the rules to change the game, the first question is … are defensive players properly protected? Today, I think the answer is no.
In fact, I don't even think goalies wear proper protection. The balls are moving faster on average, but chest protector technology has not changed substantially in some time. We've know of this type of injury since before 1999-2000, when within a 15 month period Eric Sopracasa, a UMass long-stick and Louis Acompora, a freshman goalkeeper at Northport High School in New York, both died at practices from shots to the heart. And since the job of the goalie and any good defender is to step in front of shots, it is clear that protection has not been properly addressed.
This situation in many ways parallels the aftermath of the tragic death of NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt on Feb. 18, 2001. The crash that killed Earnhardt was the result of some bumping during a crucial part of the race, and Earnhardt's car hit the wall. A defect in Earnhardt's protection within the car ultimately resulted in his death. During the investigation of this tragic accident, there was never any consideration of changing the sport so that the bumping would not happen again. Sure, if bumping were completely eliminated from racing, accidents like this one would not happen again, but the question that was raised not about how NASCAR should be changed, but how the racers could be protected properly so that in the event of a crash, the participants would be protected. The sport was not changed, the level of protection was. I think lacrosse needs to follow that model.
In other words, bumping in NASCAR is part of the sport, just as much as blocking shots is a part of lacrosse. Sure, there could be tragic consequences for both, but the focus of NASCAR has and will continue to be protection, not legislation. Shouldn't lacrosse be the same way?
Speaking of Rules Changes …
While the Men's Lacrosse Committee ponders this major rule change and several minor ones, I am wondering what, if any, rules changes are in store for the women's game. There is one that will probably not be considered that will hopefully get some scrutiny in the very near future.
Stalling. That's right - stalling. More of a hot issue in the men's game, stalling in Women's Lacrosse is simply getting out of hand. I'm going to call it the "Princeton Defense" because the only way to stop Princeton's offense this season was to take the air out of the ball. Unlike the Princeton men's team, the women's Lacrosse team at Princeton featured a fairly up-tempo high-octane offense that was fun to watch. This Tiger team had incredible speed and liked to use it, and by mid-season the strategy for beating Princeton became holding on to the ball for huge chunks of time. An average Brown team lost to Princeton 5-4 in May basically because Brown had the ball the entire game. During the NCAA Quarterfinals, Dartmouth tried the same thing and the game went to overtime, with Princeton winning 6-5. After Princeton beat Vanderbilt in the NCAA semifinal, the Vandy staff openly admitted that their strategy was to keep the ball away from Princeton.
Stalling in the women's game is beginning to get ridiculous. Not just in the Princeton example, but across the sport at many levels. In the Princeton case, stalling is a strategy based on weakness, but in other examples it is used because there is no rule to prevent it. I was scouting one game this Spring where one team was winning by three at halftime and came out in a stall in the second half. For 13 consecutive minutes, they spread out and passed the ball in a circle. The opposition finally pressured out after everybody on the field, including spectators, basically forced the coach to do it, and the team with the ball scored. They won the draw and stalled for nine more minutes. Ultimately, the losing team only got the ball back with five minutes left. It was perhaps the most boring half of lacrosse I have ever seen at any level … and this was a college game.
There is nothing in the rules in women's lacrosse to prevent stalling and that has to change. While some would suggest that no respectable coach would employ a stall for dozens of minutes at a time, if the top Division I teams are willing to do it, anybody would. And it is a sound strategy … there is no "keep in the box" rule because there is no restraining box in Women's Lacrosse. Thus, with all of the space on the offensive half, why not stall, particularly with a lead in the second half.
But, it is terrible for the sport to see teams stalling. The men's game took care of this a few years ago, now it is time for the women's game to follow suit. The problem is, without a restraining box, how is this accomplished? I do not know the exact answer, perhaps expanding the 12-meter fan out to 18 meters and forcing stalling teams to keep it in the fan will do the trick. But something needs to be done. I actually think stalling in Women's Lacrosse is worse than it is in the men's game, and it needs to be addressed.
Speaking of Women's Lacrosse …
There has been a lot of talk in Women's Lacrosse circles about doing something with the NCAA Championships to increase interest. The 2003 NCAA Championship was a disaster in terms of attendance figures when the Championships were in Syracuse. 2004 in Princeton was a good showing, but it could be better.
One proposal floating around is to bring the Men's and Women's Division I Championships together. I think that would be a big mistake for too many reasons to list. Another idea is to bring the Women's Division I, II, and III Championships back together - Division I and III used to play together but broke apart a few years ago. This would work to some degree, but I do not think as much as some would think. There is one way to increase interest in the NCAA Women's Championships that has not been proposed formally … and I wonder why.
The "other" lacrosse event of Memorial Day Weekend is the US Lacrosse Women's National Tournament at Lehigh University. The event is truly fantastic with thousands of High School and College players from across the country competing for a National Championship at the High School and Club levels. It is truly an incredible event that I consider the highlight of the year for Women's Lacrosse at any level.
With thousands of participants and spectators, and a venue that includes the use of Goodman Stadium, Lehigh's beautiful football stadium, why not move the NCAA Championships to Memorial Day Weekend and play the games at Lehigh? Sure, there would be a bit of a mess with rescheduling some games at National Tournament, but imagine the benefits. There are already thousands of Women's Lacrosse fans in attendance … why would they skip the biggest college games of the year? You would insure an annual attendance for the NCAA Championships that far surpasses the current numbers, and make National Tournament even better. And since holding an NCAA Championship on Memorial Day Weekend has proven to be successful, this seems to make sense, increase numbers in the seats, and make a wonderful National Tournament event even better.
July 4, 2004
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