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NCAA stiffens penalties in women's lacrosse to enhance safety

The NCAA, stepping up its efforts to rein in the physical play that has come to characterize high-level women's lacrosse, is significantly stiffening penalties for fouls beginning in the 2024 season.

Under the new rules approved in July by the NCAA's Playing Rules Oversight Panel, game officials will card players and force them to sit out a minute of the game for any of a series of infractions, including charging, holding, illegal picks, cross-checks and pushing. In the past, players received two warnings before officials penalized them for those violations.

The oversight panel also increased penalties for players who receive red cards -- issued by officials for contact they deem particularly egregious -- from two to five minutes on the sidelines.

Women's lacrosse officials called the changes among the most notable the NCAA has made in recent years to enhance the safety of the game.

"Our focus going into the meetings was to discuss physicality in our game while also maintaining the integrity of the game," Kimberly Wayne, women's lacrosse coach at Davidson College and chair of the NCAA's Women's Lacrosse Rules Committee, wrote in an email.

The changes came months after a serious injury suffered by a Yale University attacker during a game in February at Stony Brook University on Long Island. An apparent cross-check left sophomore Taylor Everson with a ruptured kidney and severe internal bleeding, putting her in the hospital for two weeks.

Everson spent months recovering before returning to action in an October scrimmage.

"When she ran on to the field as a starter, the stands erupted in applause and there were a lot of tears," her mother, Carolyn Everson, said in an email. "She scored pretty quickly and the stands went crazy again and the tears this time were around happiness for a girl who was back out doing what she loves doing." (Carolyn Everson is a member of the board of directors for the Walt Disney Company, ESPN's parent company.)

Everson is among a handful of collegiate women lacrosse players who have suffered severe injuries in recent years. Officials called the injuries a byproduct of the sport's evolution and a rules structure that some observers say has not kept pace with that change. Women's lacrosse was long viewed as a noncontact sport and is played with little protective equipment even as it has grown more physical.

"The ability to make contact in legal ways has led to players using their sticks in illegal ways, which then leads to foul and physical harm," Wayne said.

Beyond toughening penalties, the oversight panel voted to allow players to wear close-fitting padded compression shirts under their jerseys next season. The shirts should limit serious injuries caused when lacrosse sticks jab into players' midsections. Previously, the players had to apply to the NCAA for a waiver to wear the shirts.

The revised rules also require defenders to stay farther away while guarding players within an 8-meter arc of the goal, and all defenders in that area must be guarding another player, not just patrolling the area.

Meanwhile, as a result of Everson's injury, Yale University has changed its policy and will have an ambulance present at women's lacrosse games -- a precaution usually limited at most universities to collision sports like hockey and football.

Everson, who has chosen to wear one of the protective shirts as she has worked herself back into playing condition, said she is optimistic about the changes.

"I think these rules have the potential to be successful, but we are very much in a trial-and-error period right now," she said in an email. "I believe that focusing on mitigating cross checks and overly-aggressive play is the most important part of these rule changes -- which comes from not only the rules themselves but also coaching and refereeing."