By Al Mattei
Founder, TopOfTheCircle.com

The game of field hockey is meant to be a game played below the waist; the goal boards, 18 inches above the ground, are a testament to the rulesmakers' insistence on playing the game safely.

But go to many field hockey games these days, and you will see a disturbing trend: chipped or lifted dangerous passes or shots, uncontrolled sticks, and players benched because of season-ending head injuries.

It has been enough for some parents to call for mandatory head protection for field hockey players, and led to the consideration for mandatory eyewear nationwide eyewear. Those calls have led to a backlash from coaches and players who see helmets as leading towards a rougher game.

It is uncontrovertable to say that the game of field hockey has evolved far beyong the scope of the rules originally written for the game. Composite sticks, plastic balls, and players with world-class sprinter's speed have sent the game to the edge of umpires' control.

One collegiate doubleheader played in October 2000 illustrates the point. In one game, a forward was hit across the neck with an uncontrolled stick. In the other, a defender was hit on the cheek with a pass. One of that defender's teammates was on the bench with a shattered cheekbone.

Both teams had goals waved off because of chipped corner shots which, if players had been in the path of the ball, could have led to major injury.

The college game was not the only place seeing major head injuries in 2000. Scholastic hockey saw more than its share of hurts -- one New Jersey junior varsity team has seen two of its players carried off the field during pre-game warmups because of head injuries.

In some places, however, umpiring crews have gotten the message about head injuries. In many places in the country, uncontrolled-stick calls have been on the rise.

One such place was Hereford, Md., about a dozen miles outside of Baltimore. With memories of the loss of Hereford star Kelly Harris for part of the 1999 season, the Bulls hosted Baltimore Roland Park (Md.) to open the 2000 season.

"A stick on the opposing team hit one of our players across the nose and the eye," said Hereford head coach Tammy Mundie. "She needed a couple of surgeries in order to repair it."

There has, despite the fear of external regulation of the game of field hockey through a helmet or eyewear rule, been some inconsistency when it has come to the dangerous use of sticks and balls. In the Hereford-Roland Park game, there were a number of uncontrolled-stick calls, but there were some undercut balls that were not called; a Hereford fullback was hit on the chin with a ball in the contest on a chipped ball that was whistled.

"I was preaching for my kids to work on alternative means to get the ball down the field," Mundie says. "But they didn't call all of the dangerous sticks, balls, and stick-hacking that they said that they were going to call."

In some other places, head injuries are still a big, big issue. One place is the free-swinging state of Pennsylvania, where hard hits -- from balls and sticks -- are expected.

Newtown Council Rock (Pa.) suffered three major stick-induced injuries in the opening game of the 2000 season against Souderton (Pa.). One uncontrolled stick cut through a shinguard, gashing a player in the leg. An undercut ball struck the head of one of her teammates.

And midfielder Kara Weber suffered a cut on the outside of her eye from two seperate stick incidents -- one completely accidental, another from an unfortunate tackle from her opponent's left.

"I guess I've been fortunate, in 14 years, not to have had any players suffer a major head injury," says Council Rock head coach Pat Toner. "I guess they could institute helmets, but they won't do any good."

That's the message that Leda Levine, head coach at Mansfield (Mass.) had preached during the entire 2000 offseason. When she learned that the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA) had begun the process of mandating headgear for field hockey, she knew what she had to do.

Levine, former president of the state field hockey coaches' association, had seen what had happened in the mid-90s when the state mandated soft helmets for lacrosse players: wild stick-swinging had taken all of the skill out of playing defense and had hurt many Massachusetts lacrosse players' chances of getting Division I scholarships.

But what galled Levine was the not the concept of history repeating itself, but the evidence on which the MIAA was basing its decision.

"They got data from Delaware, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Ohio, and New York State -- and the Delaware data was only from 1996," she said. "What they had was from 7,500 venues -- practices, games, scrimmages. From that, they had just 60 incidents from 5,070 players. Those 60 were from undercutting of the ball; 33 were from contact in front."

Levine's argument is double-pronged. She can give you an entire conspiracy theory -- replete with conflicts of interest and behind-the-scenes dealing -- which explains the speed of the MIAA's decision to pass a helmet rule.

But she also gives the example of the experiment at Marion Old Rochester (Mass.), which started wearing soft helmets in 1996. The team gave them up because of the heat buildup between the shell and the head.

The odd thing about the proposed helmets is that it is dubious whether they would prevent injuries to noses, orbital bones or the neck/jaw area.

"I've put on one of those helmets, and they really limit your vision," Mundie says. "You have no peripheral or underneath vision whatsoever."

Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island now mandate eye protection similar to girls' lacrosse players.

There are many opinions on what to do in order to make the game of field hockey less hazardous for its participants. Much of it comes down to teaching.

Players have learned European-style trick shots in summer hockey camps, but in applying them to games played under National Federation rules, defenders are often victimized by shots fired at odd angles.

Too, defenders are often guilty of being overaggressive in tackling the ball. A player getting to the ball late will often get hit by the follow-through of the shooter, especially if the player tackles from the shooter's left.

And in a seminar at the National Field Hockey Coaches' Association 2005 convention, USA Field Hockey director of high performance Terry Walsh emphasized the need to tackle properly, matching right shoulder on right shoulder.

Levine has some ideas extant of coaching that can also help.

"There are two things that we need in scholastic field hockey," she says. "One is better fields -- most school fields are bumpy and they won't cut the grass. The other is a[n uncontrolled] 'sticks' note in the Federation rule book so that it will get called more."

The former first is a major problem, but is being rectified by degrees. A wave of artificial grass and artificial turf installations in the past four years have turned campus fields from Maine to California into smooth competition surfaces, and several school districts in Virginia and Maryland schools now have Bermuda grass hockey fields.

But other schools play in shameful conditions. Too many championship-caliber teams are obliged to play their field hockey games on fields laid out on baseball outfields where one side of the field encroaches on the infield dirt. This changes the game, especially in the areas of the field where the hard-packed dirt and grass intersect.

Until there is agreement on all factors leading to head injuries in field hockey, the call for helmets or goggles will get louder, which is not good for the game.