Rules In Women’s Hockey And Lacrosse Out Of Touch

By discouraging physical contact in the rules of women’s hockey and lacrosse, the sports inherently go against Title IX’s bylaws

Ridiculous. That’s the only word Boston College women’s hockey forward Kenzie Kent had to describe Alex Carpenter’s five-minute major penalty in the championship round of Women’s Beanpot between the Eagles and Harvard.

Normally, when a hockey player receives a five-minute major, it’s hard to argue. Majors often result from fighting or egregious minors, and its generally obvious when they should be enforced. On this particular play, BC’s superstar forward, Carpenter, hit Kalley Armstrong by pushing her arms forward and knocking the Crimson forward to the ice. Although replays show that Carpenter’s hit didn’t appear to have much force behind it—and thus was not worthy for a major—Armstrong fell hard.

The call? Body checking, something women’s hockey players cannot do whatsoever.

In the men’s game, however, players can check at will.

It seems odd that the only significant rule differentiating the male and female iterations of hockey relates to physicality. By including this distinction and denying women the ability to check, hockey’s governing body, the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) discriminates against the women’s ability to handle a hard hit.

“It’d be one thing if we were playing against boys,” Kent said. “With girls, we’re all on the same level, so it shouldn’t be as strict as they make it.”

This, in turn, makes women’s hockey more difficult to officiate, according to BC head coach Katie King Crowley. She believes that the lack of hitting in the women’s game “leaves a lot more grey area” for referees. It’s completely up to the refs’ discretion on what’s considered a flagrant hit, and thus worthy of either a minor or major penalty, rather than having more by-the-book examples like in the men’s game.

Women’s hockey formerly included checking. In the 1990 IIHF Women’s World Championships, European teams wanted to add checking to compete with the North American teams. In her book On the Edge: Women Making Hockey History, Elizabeth Etue wrote that these teams still couldn’t compete with North American teams because the players were stronger. Since North American players were bigger, they also never learned how to check properly. This led to a wealth of injuries, and the rule was changed in 1992.

Hayley Wickenheiser, a player for the Canadian women’s hockey team in 1998, told The Chicago Tribune that she, as well as several teammates, believes that checking should be allowed in the sport to give natural size advantages for certain players.

This debate on what women can handle physically extends beyond hockey—lacrosse and softball represent two other significant examples.

It would be unfair to analyze the discrepancies in physical rigor between softball and baseball, seeing as the two are completely different sports. But why is softball at the college level played for only seven innings—five innings in some cases—while baseball players get to play the full nine? This implies women can’t handle the full nine innings.

This extends even more to lacrosse, where aggressive stick checking and body contact are illegal in the women’s game while they’re allowed in the men’s game. Interesingly enough, there’s no justification for this difference in the official rules given by USA Lacrosse.

Mikaela Rix, senior lacrosse star for the Eagles, concedes that while she doesn’t want to be hit, it isn’t fair that lacrosse’s governing body doesn’t give justification for this disparity in the rules.

“I don’t personally see [a logical reason],” Rix said. “Women in sports work just as hard as men do, we’re just not as physically—we’re not as strong or fast because that’s just not the way we’re built, but I don’t think that should hinder our ability to play a sport at all, no.”

Kent, a two-sport star in lacrosse and hockey at BC, finds that the amount of penalties called hurts the viewership of the women’s game. “It’s a little much, the amount of whistles—I think it totally slows the game down,” Kent said. “Obviously high school is a lot different, but whenever I’d hear that people don’t come to the game, I hear ‘oh, there’s too many whistles, too hard to watch.’”

The difference in treatment between male and female athletes extends beyond physicality. Four field hockey players at the University of Iowa have currently filed a complaint that the school violated Title IX in firing head coach Tracey Griesbaum. The players argue, according to ESPN’s Kate Fagan, that Iowa “generally holds female coaches to a higher or different standard than male coaches,” in how they can train and treat players. Patrick Vint of Black Heart Gold Pants, Iowa’s SB Nation blog, also mentions that the four field hockey players reference the established double standard in treatment of male and female coaches. Iowa Director of Athletics Gary Pardo has already come under scrutiny for covering up a sexual assault by former player Cedric Everson, as well as allowing several football players to get injured under football coach Kirk Ferentz.

 “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” – Title IX

Some of the players and coaches agree with the lack of physical contact in the game, considering intense injuries in sports. BC lacrosse coach Acacia Walker notes the amount of concussions in the women’s game. “I think [the restrictions are] very necessary,” Walker said. “There’s so much discussion about putting girls in helmets because of all the concussions, and there’s so much question about who’s fault it is that there are so many concussions.”

Head injuries are still not well understood—the NFL is only beginning to analyze how CTE affects the brain. Walker believes other coaches are still to blame for many of the injuries. “In my mind, I’m saying: ‘That coach obviously teaches that and allows it every day,’ which is the only reason why those girls will play like that,” Walker said. “My kids? We don’t allow checking. Period.”

In addition, Walker feels that, by adding more physical rules, girls will be deterred from playing lacrosse. “Right now, lacrosse is the fastest growing sport in the country, and I think it would be a shame to change any rules drastically in order to allow more contact,” Walker said. “Our game is structured totally different, it’s not supposed to be full contact. It’s more about finesse with your stick. They are completely different sports. Different rules, different amount of people on the field, the number one thing is the contact on the field.”

Crowley feels that removing an emphasis on the physical element of women’s hockey improved the quality of the game overall by making the sport more focused on the player’s skill set. “I like the fact that women’s hockey doesn’t have checking,” Crowley said, noting the pure ability and finesse of her players. “When you get to higher levels, and people come to watch, they realize how good of a game it is.”

Rix puts it more simply. “I don’t really want to get hit, so I’m completely fine with us not having the same rules as the men’s game.”

But Rix and Kent can agree on one thing: no rule change will prevent them from playing the sports they love. “Definitely I’d have continued to play,” Kent said. “It would not have changed [my mind].”

Women’s lacrosse and women’s hockey will, in all likelihood, never change their rules regarding physicality. For the protection of players, that makes sense. But it’s also fair to note that removing physicality violates Title IX and discriminates against female student-athletes. In addition, we must stop allowing this double standard in how administrations treat and restrict coaches of female teams.

So we come to a crossroad. More equal treatment or keeping players safe: What’s more important in today’s game?

I feel it’s critical to properly educate players to prepare for a more physical game. Consider what Walker says about how other lacrosse players are learning the rules incorrectly from their coaches. If more physical rules are implemented for girls at a young age, along with educating players about head injuries, it might help cut down on trips to the disabled list by the time they get to college. In addition, re-instituting checking in women’s hockey (especially when the game is already very physical) or at least clarifying what referees can and cannot call may clear up the ambiguity of penalties.

And if those rules were in place from the beginning, maybe the Beanpot Championship would be returning to Chestnut Hill.

Featured Image by Arthur Bailin / Heights Editor


About Michael Sullivan 272 Articles
Michael Sullivan was the 2017 editor-in-chief of The Heights and a two-time sports editor. He brought this paper to once a week and reminisces about the Wednesdays he could've had at BC. You can still follow his journalistic adventures @MichaelJSully.