Published: Wednesday, September 07, 2011, 5:15 AM
In her 13 years as a field hockey coach at Eastern High, four years as a collegiate player at James Madison University, a high school career at Moorestown and a whole childhood of playing before that, Danyle Heilig has never seen a field hockey injury that would have been prevented by wearing goggles.
But since a national rule mandating the use of safety goggles for all field hockey players across the country was put into place for this fall, Heilig has already seen blood spilled.
“Somebody was playing low defense, and the goggles brushed into her nose very aggressively and broke it,” Heilig said, recalling a preseason practice. “I’ve been around the sport since the late ’80s. I’ve seen a girl kind of get clipped in the forehead and one in the cheek, but nothing the goggles would protect.”
This season, the 62,000 high school field hockey players nationwide — and the nearly 8,000 in New Jersey — will be adorned with plastic or metal cages across their eyes. Many of the state’s most veteran coaches disagree with the new requirement, the product of a rule instated by the National Federation of State High School Associations in April.
Elliot Hopkins, the NFHS director of educational services and field hockey rules editor, said the use of goggles has been a hotly debated topic between the NFHS’s medical advisory committee (which encouraged mandating their use) and the field hockey rules committee (which was against the change) for the past decade. The board of directors stepped in this year to break the tie.
“We have six states that have mandated protective eyewear for a number of years,” Hopkins said, “so we had live data and factual application that the decision to wear them did not impact girls that played.
I hear from our colleagues at US Field Hockey and the NCAA that it’s a ground game. Our level of competition could be a 15-year-old girl who has just picked up a hockey stick. She’s swinging that thing wildly. When you combine lack of skills with poor field conditions it becomes an aerial game.”
USA Field Hockey has publicly come out against the rule.
“We actually think it could promote more injury,” said Laura Darling, the managing director of USA Field Hockey. “There’s indication more concussions happen with goggles. We’re doing our own research on it, and that is under way.”
While players are quick to admit they don’t enjoy wearing them, Shore Regional senior Hannah Barreca said she has, in fact, suffered from several injuries that may not have occurred with goggles in place. As a freshman, she needed stitches after being hit with a stick near her eyebrow. And this spring, she sported a black eye after a ball jumped toward her face.
“It probably would have been a smart thing to probably wear them, but it’s easier to see without them,” Barreca said. “And part of being safe is being able to see. That’s the argument we’ve been having at practice.”
Barreca’s coach, 42-year veteran Nancy Williams, maintains a strong stance against goggles. Her issues start with the equipment itself — primarily, lacrosse goggles.
“If you think goggles are the right thing, develop a pair of goggles for field hockey,” Williams said. “A year ago, lacrosse cage masks were illegal in field hockey because they’re dangerous, but now they’re legal. Why? Because there aren’t enough goggles out there, so we’re just using somebody else’s.
“We know you should use a helmet in football, but if the only one we had is a baseball helmet, well that’s not safe.”
Hopkins said he has been in touch with goggles manufacturers who said field hockey eyewear would be available for this season.
At Randolph High in Morris County, the field hockey team has been mandated to wear goggles for the past seven seasons at the urging of parents who had witnessed several eye-gash incidents. But a separate rule modification has Randolph’s head coach, Linda Cross, reconsidering.
In fall 2010, the NFHS implemented a rule change allowing a player to “self-start” after a free hit is awarded. In the past, players were required to stop, set up and then advance the ball through a pass. Now, players can immediately advance the ball through dribbling or a self pass for 16-yard hits, side-ins and all free hits outside of the 25-yard area.
Additionally, opponents must now be 7 yards away from a player taking a free hit, as opposed to 5 yards, to increase reaction time.
“We take away this dead ball, which was always a blast that hit people in the face, so we don’t even need goggles anymore,” Cross said. “We should have been wearing them all those years when we didn’t have the self-start rule and the 7-yard rule. It’s so backwards.”