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2009 E-Lacrosse Feature: Warrior sues NCAA for $30 million over lacrosse rules

According to The Grand Rapids Press, Warrior, a major lacrosse manufacturer located in Michigan, has finally begun its legal battle against the NCAA for changing the stick design rules, filing Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Grand Rapids, Mich. The industry knew it was coming for a while now. Over the last decade, the manufacturers, including Warrior, have designed sticks that make the ball harder to dislodge and ultimately warranting more violence to defend against, according to detractors, some of them quite esteemed. It has long been an issue with the NCAA rules committee and it finally did something to make the game safer, in the committee's opinion.

Not that there isn't disagreement on the core issue here - safety. Many feel that the lighter defensive shafts on the market today have already played the role of equalizer on the field. Faster checks, more precision checks and even brand new checks that couldn't be performed with heavier equipment have made the last ten years a defensive renaissance in lacrosse. The scorers of yesterday would be surprised at how difficult it is today to get through the poles en route to glory. One person I talked to who knows the game as well as anyone on the planet suggested we look at a ten-year-old NCAA game and a random NCAA game from last year, surmising we'd perhaps count the same number of ground balls. This is a stat that would indicate a longer possession time for offensive players and the effectiveness of the defense at dislodging the ball. Of course, you could not just use the paper stats. You'd have to watch the games and compare. Ground ball stats are subjective and kept differently at different schools, even on different days, so it would be a rough barometer, at best.

In any case, the NCAA rules committee, which is made up of college coaches, has determined otherwise and made consistent recommendations for years for a change. And they aren't the only ones. US Lacrosse, the governing body of our game, located in Baltimore, has long felt that action was needed. Steve Stenersen, the president and CEO of US Lacrosse, feels that creativity in design just needs to be balanced by attention to the integrity of the game and the safety of the players.

"I am very thankful that the NCAA has started to address the issue and it's overdue," Stenersen said. "The relatively unchecked freedom the manufacturers have enjoyed in the area of design has been really good for the sport in some ways but it's gone too far at times".

Stenersen and I agree that the true hallmark of the game, teamwork, embodied by the quick movement of a passing game has been overtaken by the dodging game mentality. More and more, individual stars are becoming more important than the team.

Many manufacturers have invested a lot in the more narrow designs, but Warrior is the only one bringing legal action. Warrior is obviously in that situation and has gone to court many, many times to get its way in the industry. It can be said that the stick wars (and they were wars) of the last decade were won or lost mostly in Michigan courtrooms and not on the lacrosse field.

The lacrosse business can get very nasty. There are good guys and bad guys, just like the real world. So here we go again, but this time the NCAA gets to visit a Michigan courtroom. This isn't the first time the NCAA has locked horns with Warrior. A while back, the NCAA outlawed the Warrior goalie stick with the wings on the bottom corners (remember that one?). Warrior threatened a lawsuit and the NCAA folded. That was not, however, a safety issue. We'll see if the NCAA's assertion of player safety is as important as its pocketbook. My sources say that the NCAA recognizes lacrosse as a high profile sport, garnering more national attention yearly and will not cave in this case.

The NCAA is in a tight spot really, because this rule was passed for 2009 and then postponed until 2010 to give manufacturers some time to move old inventories and get ready for the big change. But in those two years, how much money has been spent throughout the industry in research & development and design preparing for the new rule? If it takes 13 months to get a stick from design to the store shelf, then most companies have already invested quite a bit in 2010 heads, especially given the new changes. We know that one manufacturer, Reebok, has already "cut metal" in the process, meaning they built a stick mold for a 2010 design, costing up to of $30,000 on average, from my understanding. Consider any new company preparing to enter the market in 2010. They would have spent their entire investment on the new design rules and none on the 2009 specifications. Losing the lawsuit to Warrior would mean that the NCAA basically had to buy all of Warrior's old narrow heads out of every warehouse they use at something close to retail, making them the largest lacrosse stick buyer ever. But losing lawsuits to the new guys would leave the NCAA buying entire lacrosse companies with whole lines of obsolete but "safe" product.

A few parts of the Warrior argument I've heard make no sense. The first is Warrior's concern over the cost to consumers of replacing their heads for 2010. Most lacrosse kids buy a new stick yearly, if not more, these days. The new features and technologies presented every year in the new product are designed and marketed to make the consumer feel like they need a new stick. The manufacturers are constantly seeking that one new idea or innovative approach that will make every kid want to switch stick companies. Last time I checked, that was the lacrosse stick business.

The second ineffective argument is that it will impact most players and the major market. The truth is the while most youth leagues adapt the NCAA rules, the bulk of the lacrosse market these days is in the hotbed and future hotbed high school states, most of which belong to the NFHS or National Federation of State High School Associations, which usually takes a few years to adapt NCAA rules, if ever. This means that 18 big lacrosse states will still adhere to the old standards after the NCAA rule goes into effect. There are still plenty of places to sell the old narrow heads, and likely will be for years to come.

One of my sources spoke to a Division III coach who told him that he was afraid that the cost of sticks that meet the new specifications might increase significantly because the market for the new design would be so small relative to the levels of play. This is obviously counter to the Warrior argument and indicates how small the college stick market really is in comparison to that of high schools and high school-aged kids.

I reached Jason Goger, general manager of Baltimore-based lacrosse manufacturer STX, and he sent me this strongly worded statement on the matter:

STX disagrees with Warrior's charges against the NCAA. First, the NCAA gave all equipment manufacturers, including Warrior and STX, fair opportunities to comment on the proposed rule change. Second, the NCAA has given the manufacturers enough time to make the changes required by the rule change. STX has been working on the required changes and will have its equipment ready by the time the new rule takes effect in 2010. Third, Warrior's scare tactic claims in the suit about the effect of the rule change on players and retailers are wrong and unfair. Players and retailers should be told the true facts: A much smaller percentage of all lacrosse players will be affected by the rule change than Warrior asserts.

Other manufacturers I spoke to assert the same sentiments about the overuse of the courts as a scare tactic and the ample and fair time given to make the 2010 changes.

My gut says that the NCAA will fold and drop the rule change. The lawsuit in front of you is scarier than the lawsuit you may face down the road. But I think that other manufacturers will file suit against the NCAA, if they give in to Warrior. I also think that, if this occurs, a player will sue the NCAA one day because they were injured as a result of this rule being dropped or other safety rules not being passed to avoid lawsuits like this one from the same people. The NCAA would be better off fighting the battle now and taking the high road on the side of our kids. Imagine if they fold and kill the rule change. What would happen if they faced a lawsuit by a company that enthusiastically made the changes the NCAA requested and invested heavily for the last two years in the new design? If that scenario played out, the NCAA would actually be in a position of arguing against the changes they insisted were needed, voted and fought for. It would be the ultimate embarrassment. The NCAA would lose that case badly with its own written opinions on the matter serving as their most condemning witness.

Stay tuned. We'll have all the details as they play out. No court date is set yet.

September 13, 2008
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