By Al Mattei
Founder, TopOfTheCircle.com

It happens all too often in high-school field hockey games.

A long, loud whistle is blown by the game official, and a player is slumped down or doubled over, holding her jaw or face.

And very often, the player who wound up hitting the other with her stick is looking befuddled at her coach or the umpire, as if to say, "Where did she come from?"

And therein is the problem.

The assignment of blame for head injuries in field hockey has gone from rulesmaking committees and the governing bodies of the sport to American courtrooms.

Lawsuits, or the mere threat of them, have made three states -- Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island -- adopt mandatory protective eyewear. Litigation has also made the school district of Marshwood in South Berwick, Maine put goggles on its players as well.

The drumbeat of eyewear proponents -- judge-shopping doctors, equipment manufacturers, and trial lawyers -- led to a 2005 vote on mandatory eyewear on the part of the National Federation of State High School Associations.

The vote, as reported to TopOfTheCircle.com, was 6 to 2 against the resolution. But that means that only three minds need to be changed in order to put in force mandatory eyewear, even against the overwhelming sentiment of more than 2,100 American secondary schools and universities.

But the eyewear debate has thus far failed to address both prevention as well as fault. In other words, when it comes to preventing head injuries, with whom does the responsibility lie? Is it with the attacker to not hit the ball too hard? Is it with the umpire to blow play dead when a collision is imminent? Is it with administrators to provide a smooth competition surface?

But if you ask those adults who are around the most action -- field hockey umpires -- there is one responsibile party which is too often forgotten: the defender.

"The way it is looked at in most places in the United States, the defender can stand wherever she wants to stand, and they get protection from the attackers, so the attacher is prevented from doing things legitimately in the game, because there is an opponent in line with the ball, in the area the swing's going through, et cetera," says Steve Simpson, assistant coach at the University of Massachusetts who is also an FIH-rated umpire. "That's not the way it is in the rest of the world, or where it should be."

"In all circumstances, the onus is on the players to play safely. But the most important person, regarding safety, is the coach," says Cris Maloney, umpire manager for the Field Hockey Umpires' Association of central New Jersey. "The second-most important is the players. That is where coaching happens; sometimes where players learn to be unsafe. It is the umpire's job not to worry about safety, but the application of the rules."

Indeed, the concept of "dangerous play" when it comes to the uncontrolled follow-through of a stick has been one of the thorniest problems in the last 35 years. It used to be that a "sticks" call would be whistled on players who had the temerity to end their backswing above their knees.

But as the rules have opened up as well as the game, sticks are coming up higher on the follow-through, players with strong drives are valued by high-school coaches more than players with good skills, and head injuries have become more prevalent and occasionally, more severe.

The Pennsylvania Field Hockey Coaches' Association includes an eye-opening list of some 35 head injuries voluntarily reported by its membership for the 2004 season. It includes injuries to the jaw, nose, and cheek -- injuries that would not be protected with the goggles proposed for use in 2005.

It is hard to break these injuries into any sort of "fault" or "no fault" categories without actually seeing the incidents on tape. However, it is interesting to note that half the reported injuries are from the stick swing, something which can be ameliorated with awareness of the danger of being in the wrong place.

"If I go into the circle as a forward, and as a defender, you're endangering yourself, the way the game is taught dictates that I can't do a whole range of things that players in other countries, players are used to doing," Simpson says. "Our defenders and our goalies aren't ready for shots coming because Americans just don't shoot that shot: they fiddle with the ball for longer to get out of the way of a defender. The defender's responsibility is to not to be there, so if I take the shot that is there for me in the game, and I hit the defender because he's standing there, that's their problem. I'm allowed to shoot, and the follow-through is going to go there."

Incredibly, there are some groups of umpires who would rather recognize the situations in which danger could occur, stop the game, and award a free hit before the stick is swung. But the speed of the game is changing that attitude amongst the umpires.

"The ultimate responsibility of the umpire is not safety. It's fairness, and to enforce the rules," Maloney says. "In a perfect world, it should not fall to an individual umpire's or a group of umpires' interpretation."

In a litigious society where eyewear is already in place in some parts of the country, it is hard to convince coaches to get players to play safely without the proper baseline of education, and to get field hockey players and coaches to think that the umpire is the only protection they have against dangerous play.

"Without opinion, there isn't danger until the danger happens, and that's a pretty slippery slope," Maloney says. "Dangerous play isn't allowed under any circumstances."

NOTE: The Right To Right Is Right program is designed to help players, coaches, and administrators in maintaining a safe and injury-free environment for all field hockey participants. However, participants in any sport should be aware of the inherent risk of injury.