Each year at the US Lacrosse National Convention I make certain to attend the "Points of Emphasis / Rule Changes" presentation by some of the top officials in the country.
On both the men's and women's side, the points of emphasis presentation is simply invaluable, and worth the cost and time of the trip to Philly. In a sport like lacrosse - particularly on the women's side - there are so many rules and so much interpretation that getting a glimpse into what the officials will be taking a careful look at could make a major difference come the spring. I go every year to this presentation and I probably always will.
Two years ago, a very good presentation discussed cross-checking, and cross-check holding, and how the prevention thereof would be a major point of emphasis for the season. It had been determined that the practice of pushing, holding, or in some cases checking, with a horizontal stick had become abundant in women's lacrosse, and with detrimental results. There was a power point presentation with video clips of a fall game at Dartmouth, and the volume of cross-checking in the clips was simply incredible. We're not talking about cross-checking like we see in hockey or even men's lacrosse where a cross-check can be a jarring blow. We're talking about using a cross-check to bump somebody, force an attacker to change directions, or knock a player away from a ground ball. The clips were clear, and the message was simple. Cross-checking would be a zero-tolerance call. The sticks had to be vertical and off of the opponent's body, and body positioning needed to be taught.
And for a season, we saw the end of the cross-check in women's lacrosse.
Skip ahead a couple of years. It is 2005, and the "point of emphasis" has apparently been forgotten. I coach a college team in its first varsity season, we've played 11 games, and the amount of cross-checking I have seen is simply staggering. I noticed this in early March, and I thought about writing this column back then. During the five weeks since I first noticed this pattern, I've attended nearly two dozen division I games at five different venues, and scouted opponents of my team as well. I've seen probably 50 college lacrosse games this spring, and in every instance, at every game, not only is the cross-check not being called by officials, it seems to be a practice being encouraged by coaches as well.
Cross checking is not only bad for the game. It is dangerous. During a game involving my team in April, a member of my team went to goal and took a shot. As she shot the ball, she was cross-checked from behind, fell head-first into a member of the other team. From the moment I saw the cross-check, to the moment I saw my player finally sit up in the emergency room several hours later, all I could think about was whether this young lady would be able to walk again, and whether she would be able to realize her hopes and dreams or spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair … all because a former "point of emphasis" is now commonly ignored.
Tactically speaking, if cross-checking were legal, it would be a great form of defensive leverage. If a girl is driving to goal, a cross-check hold makes it awfully difficult to get past a defender. It also makes double-teaming far easier because it allows the defender to completely dictate to the attacker where she is going. In the open field, a quick cross-check to the back makes scooping a loose ball very difficult. And if the game officials are not in position to make the call, a cross-check is easy to get away with. Finally, and the area where I have seen cross-checking more often than any other part of the game, cross checking from the side slows down the fastest midfield players.
All of this is dangerous and all of this is illegal, but all of it is still happening in every game I've seen. In one game involving two nationally ranked DI teams, I actually saw several instances where cross-checks to the back were used to bump somebody off the ball - and they were never called. At one point during that game, a young lady fell to her knees as she battled for a loose ball, and was cross-checked from behind so hard that she fell flat on her face. No whistle. No card. The play continued.
Why is this important? The answer is simple - safety. I know that cross-checking is growing rampant in women's lacrosse because in six years of coaching the sport, I have never seen as much bruising as I see today. Not even close. Every game, I hear my team talking about the bruises they are getting on their arms and backs. Every day, I am seeing huge and ugly bruises that I never saw before. Since there is no such thing as legal contact to the back in women's lacrosse, where are these bruises coming from?
When it comes to women's lacrosse and safety, the issue you will hear discussed the most is checking to the head and face. This season, goggles became mandatory for the first time in the name of safety. There have been clinics to teach both coaches and officials how rough play and checking to the head must stop. And, for the most part, when it comes to checking to the head, it would seem that a majority of officials have done their part to maintain control on the field. But, it also seems that controlling checks to the head has led to a breakdown in other areas. We're seeing less checks to the head (or at least we hear we are), but cross-checks are now seemingly legal.
Correct me if I'm wrong here, but in women's lacrosse, is there any time that any part of a stick can legally touch any part of an opposing player's body? From my understanding, the answer is no - no part of a player's stick (head, shaft, butt end) can legally touch any part of another player's body. So, calling cross-checks should be pretty easy. This should not be a problem - particularly 27 months after it was called a point of emphasis.
This is not solely an officiating issue either. It's a coaching issue, too. At some point this season, I probably saw the team that will be the division I national champion in May. And, I can say for a fact that whoever wins the division I national championship will be a team that uses illegal cross-checking as a defensive tactic. In other words, cross-checking is not only being allowed by game officials, it is being taught by coaches. It is being taught by great coaches! It is being encouraged. And, of course, it is being learned by all of the young lacrosse players in the stands. Just two years after the call to stop the practice, cross-checking is now a part of the women's lacrosse culture. It is an accepted practice. It is the norm.
We're heading down the escalation path again in women's lacrosse here. If cross-checking continues, the bruises are going to get bigger and deeper. The injuries are going to get worse. Somebody is going to complain (and rightfully so), and the next step is gloves, pads, and perhaps helmets. I would venture to say that this step is not as far away as one would think. If other coaches are seeing the bruising that I am seeing on my own team this season, I cannot be the only one who feels this way.
What is really disturbing is that unlike the men's game, a cross check cannot be mistaken for a legal play. It is quite easy to officiate in this situation. It is never legal. So, the moment a stick touches a body, the whistle should blow, the card should come out, and the game should be safe again. Refs make plenty of decisions in games. This isn't one of them. Just call it.
I am not calling for a sport in which the whistle blows every 30 seconds and the game slows to a crawl. I don't think anybody wants to see that. But, if we emphasize body positioning and footwork for defenses, and boxing out for ground balls, cross-checking is completely unnecessary. In women's lacrosse, at any level, great defense can be achieved without cross-checking. To me, cross checking is a shortcut. It's a cheap shot, and completely unnecessary. It was a proper point of emphasis two years ago and, given that initiative's failure, should be escalated as an issue and addressed immediately.