Beyond the Bubble

Headgear implemented in local schools

In fall 2013, Princeton became the first school district in New Jersey to mandate headgear for soccer players. The policy also included field hockey and girls’ lacrosse, but the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association did not approve any of the district’s proposed headgear units for the two sports in the 2013-14 academic year, Princeton High School Athletic Director John Miranda said.

The policy required sixth-graders to wear the Full 90 equipment, while student-athletes in grades 7-12 could opt out. The headgear will become mandatory for another grade level each year until extending to all middle school and high school players.

“With all this recent research and studies and data that’s coming out with traumatic head injuries, like concussions, the school district decided to be proactive and try to ensure, as best they could from their standpoint, the health and safety of our student-athletes,” Miranda explained.

The idea was first suggested during discussions in the 2012-13 school year, according to Miranda. He collaborated with district officials such as Board of Education members and the superintendent to develop the policy. The Board’s Student Achievement Committee, which handles the athletic program, recommended the policy and received the Board’s approval in July 2013.

Princeton Board of Education President Timothy Quinn emphasized that the policy is not about preventing concussions. Instead, he said, the policy aims to minimize the risk and severity of any kind of head injury.

“Really, from the Board’s perspective, it’s all about students who suffer injuries getting back into the classroom just as soon as possible,” he noted.

Though FIFA, the global governing body for soccer, and the United States Soccer Federation approved headgear usage in the early 2000s, few American teams have implemented the protective equipment.

Princeton Public Schools’ decision reflects the district’s pioneering nature in athletics, Quinn said.

“We were one of the first local districts to use a synthetic playing surface. We were certainly one of the first districts in New Jersey to mandate baseline impact testing for our student-athletes, and in the years intervening we were also the first district implementing baseline impact testing for our middle school athletes. Now, use of synthetic playing surfaces is widespread, and all athletes in New Jersey are required to have impact testing,” Quinn said.

In the summer and fall, the policy received criticism from several media outlets and experts. Opponents charged that the headgear did not necessarily prevent concussions and could lead to increased aggression and injury by giving student-athletes a false sense of security. However, parents and coaches in the local community have been very supportive, Miranda said.

Parent Alicia Brennan said she opted into the headgear system in case it could increase safety.

“I have three girls who play competitive soccer, and I also am in the healthcare industry and I take care of children, so I do see concussions, and I do think that although there is no proven efficacy — I think at this point, no studies that would say that the concussion bands make a huge difference — personally I feel anything that could mitigate the head-to-head force that you see when people go for headballs in soccer … would be beneficial,” she said.

While Miranda said he received no negative feedback from players, John Witherspoon Middle School girls’ soccer coach Andrea Sandoval said she perceived resistance from her team.

“It seems like a lot of the girls were kind of opposed to it, just because none of them have ever really worn anything like that before. We did have a few girls that have had concussions in the past, but even with them, they weren’t really a big fan of wearing the headgear, so overall it just seemed like the general attitude towards it was not really in favor of it,” Sandoval explained.

Some student-athletes were frustrated when trying to put on the headgear, Sandoval said. Sixth-grader Raisa Rubin-Stankiewicz said the placement of the ponytail holder was somewhat uncomfortable.

John Witherspoon Middle School athletic coordinator Brian Dzbenski said the manufacturer will address these issues.

“I was in contact with Performance 90 to answer some of the questions we had as far as to wear the gear properly, and how girls should have their hair when they do wear the headgear. And I understand that they’re going to continue to work on the product, to market a better product in the future,” he said.

Headgear fitting at the middle-school level was difficult because of the wide range of body sizes, Dzbenski added.

Sandoval noted that she occasionally needed to pull players out so they could fix their headgear when it fell off during games. The overall playing style of the team seemed unaffected by the policy, she said.

But Taylor, a sophomore soccer player at Princeton High School, said the headgear interfered with her headballs, as the band slid and required her to stop and fix it, while the soft material forced her to put more effort into making the ball travel the desired distance.

On a social level, wearing the headgear would have been easier if the whole team had chosen to do so together, said Taylor, whose last name was omitted at the request of her parents because she is underage.

“It wasn’t like anyone said, ‘Oh, why are you wearing it?’ or made fun of me for making the decision for wearing it, but it was just when you were up against other teams, it would’ve been nice to have your friends doing the same thing, or you doing the same thing as them,” she said.

Sandoval noted players became used to and more accepting of the headgear as the season went on.

Moving forward, the Board plans to continue expanding the policy up to grade 12, Quinn said.

Princeton Public Schools will fund the headgear as it did in the fall, paying almost $40 per unit.

“We will provide headgear right now to any kid who either must wear it or wants to wear it, just the same way that we provide helmets, hard-shell helmets, to boys who play lacrosse, hard-shell helmets to boys who play football, and whatever other sports use a hard-shell helmet,” Quinn said.

In tracking the data over the coming years, the district will focus on measuring how much classroom time student-athletes miss as a result of their injuries, Quinn and Miranda said.

While the majority of parents of student-athletes in grades 7-12 opted out in the fall, Quinn said he believes headgear usage will become a given someday. He added he hopes other schools will follow the district’s lead.

The state has formed a committee to study the implementation of the policy in Princeton, Miranda added.

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