October 10, 2013

Brodie Merrill Pursues a Cleaner, Safer Game

by Corey McLaughlin | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter | McLaughlin Archive

Brodie Merrill, the Hill Academy (Ontario) coach, multiple-time MLL and NLL All-Star and All-World defenseman, says blindside defenseless hits have no place in the sport of lacrosse.
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

Brodie Merrill took a page from Sidney Crosby's playbook.

Crosby, the Pittsburgh Penguins star forward and one of the premier faces of the National Hockey League, sat out of competition for 10 months — with much of Canada watching its native son — as he dealt with post-concussion symptoms in 2010-11.

Days after suffering a concussion and his second blindside hit in one week playing with the Penguins, Crosby told the media he wouldn't practice or play until he was symptom-free and hoped the NHL would take a closer look at how blindside hits are affecting the game.

Merrill took to his platform last National Lacrosse League season, as he wrote weekly blogs for Philly.com, the website of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News. Merrill is director of lacrosse and boys' lacrosse coach at The Hill Academy (Ontario), a multiple-time NLL and MLL All-Star, All-World defenseman and generally a widely respected figure in the lacrosse world.

In a blog titled "My concussion, and rethinking the role of contact in 'contact' sports," he wrote that he was victim of a blindside hit while coming out of the penalty box in during the Philadelphia Wings' March 1, 2013, game against Buffalo.

He didn't feel right after being hit but masked his concussion symptoms and finished the game (and had done this before in his career as well). It wasn't the right decision, he wrote. His symptoms persisted and intensified and he experienced what he said was general fogginess and pressure in his head. He missed the Wings' next two games.

Writing about his own experience was one thing, but Merrill also moved into a discussion on hitting in lacrosse, and what its place is.

"I think we need to take a serious look at the role of contact in our sport," he wrote. "Do the big hits make the game what it is? I don't think so and I don't think we would miss them if they were gone...

"We have to make fundamental changes to our game and we have to catch ourselves when we act with the 'win at all costs' mentality. We have a lot of smart, forward thinking people involved in lacrosse. If you are serious about the game and serious about the safety of the players, you have to step up. Some concussions are unavoidable, but so many others are avoidable, but we have to change the culture."

In an interview with Lacrosse Magazine later, Merrill said he wrestled with the decision to write a blog on the topic. He didn't want it to appear that he was simply reacting to his concussion. He wasn't.

"It's something I've been thinking about for a long time," he said.

Merrill coached Jamieson Kuhlmann at Hill Academy. Kuhlmann died in May 2008 as a result of a check from an opposing player during a game with the Toronto Beaches. He was sent into a coma and never woke up.

The hit on the 15-year-old 10th-grader was described as a routine, legal hit. In the days following, the Kuhlmann family showed concern for the boy who checked Kuhlmann and didn't blame him.

"It was an accident. It was within the rules of the game. But when that happened, it kind of changed the way I was thinking about things," Merrill said.

He's not the only one. Teammates from The Hill Academy honored Kuhlmann at a memorial service by wearing his jersey number 45. Many Hill alums, such as Denver midfielder Jeremy Noble, Johns Hopkins attackman Zach Palmer and former Cornell defenseman Jason Noble, haven't stopped. They wear or have worn No. 45 at the NCAA level. So does Merrill. He wore 45 with Team Canada at the 2010 Federation of International Lacrosse (FIL) World Championship and again as recently with the Canadians at last fall's "Duel in Denver" against Team USA.

This article is a web extra supplementing the October issue of Lacrosse Magazine, a special sports science and safety edition.

» Lasting Impact: The Brad Ross Story | Just the Facts, Please
» Sports Science and Safety Committee (Gallery) | On the Horizon
» What is a Concussion? An In-Depth Q&A with USL Experts
» Inside NOCSAE: USL Partners with Equipment Standards Leader
» ACL Confessions | 'Life-Altering Injury'
» Brodie Merrill Wants Cleaner, Safer Game (Web Extra)

Don't get the mag? Join US Lacrosse and its 400,000-plus members today to start your subscription.

All of these experiences led to him sitting down to write on the role hitting plays in lacrosse, and contact sports in general. Another contributing factor: A close family friend, who was a longtime Canadian Football League player, passed away from Lou Gehrig's disease, which, according to some research, could be linked to concussions and brain trauma.

"I got positive feedback on the concussions article," Merrill said, "and I'm not the only one that's thinking about it. If nothing else, it's initiated some more dialogue on the subject. There's still so much we need to learn about head injuries. There are lasting long-term serious effects that can come from it. We have to be proactive and try to be, as a sport, ahead of the curve and try to be an example for other sports."

Merrill doesn't think drastic changes are needed, and steps have already been taken in the right direction. He said contact in the scoring area is always going to have a part in the game and there are some hits that are unavoidable, but there are also ones that are avoidable.

"Enforcing the big blindside hits more strictly," he said when asked what could be done. "We're starting to see that, but I still see examples both as a player and a coach where we celebrate the big hit. When somebody doesn't have the ball or when somebody's not looking, those hits are still legal. Those hits need to be taken out of our game.

"I don't see where it would have an effect on the flow of the game, strategy or why we love lacrosse. I grew up as a hockey and lacrosse player. I love contact. I have always idolized guys like Scott Stevens [in the NHL] and Pat Coyle [in the NLL], and guys like that who were very physical players. As I've gotten older, my experiences in the game have kind of changed the way I look at that. I try to embrace that as a player."

"There's these little decisions in a game, or these moments where you can either pull up a little bit or you can really press it and follow through," Merrill added. "If we just educate and make athletes aware of the long-term repercussions of reckless play, then when we're faced with those situations we'll tend to make the better decision."

Merrill is a big sports fan, and as he wrote, looked up to San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau. Merrill used wear Seau's No. 55 when he played lacrosse. When Seau committed suicide in May 2012, two years after retiring as one of the premier linebackers in NFL history, it hit Merrill hard.

Seau's brain was analyzed after his death and five brain specialists consulted by the National Institutes of Health concluded that Seau suffered from the type of chronic brain damage that has also been found in dozens of deceased former players.

In August, on the eve of its fall season, the NFL reached a $765 million settlement over concussion-related brain injuries among its 18,000 retired players, agreeing to compensate victims and pay for health care up to $5 million for players who have or develop ALS, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease or another severe cognitive impairment. At the same time, the NFL has enforced stiffer penalties and discouraged hits to the head and hits on defenseless players.

Lacrosse has followed a similar theme.

Starting with the 2011 college men's season, the NCAA allowed officials to issue one-, two- and three-minute non-releasable penalties when a player deliberately initiates contact with an opponent's head or neck with any part of his body or stick. In the summer of 2012, the NCAA men's rules committee took intent out of the equation by removing the word "deliberate" from what it called the "targeting the head/neck rule" in the rulebook.

In its latest round of rules changes for boys' lacrosse effective for this season, the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) for the first time classified the targeting of defenseless players, including blindside hits and body-checking a player who has his head down in an attempt to play a loose ball, as an illegal body check. A minimum of a two- or three-minute non-releasable penalty is to be assessed. The penalty for checks involving the head and neck was strengthened across the board, making a two-minute non-releasable penalty the minimum. A one-minute penalty, as at the college level, had been possible previously.

"This revision will reinforce the need to eliminate these collisions from the game," said Kent Summers, the NFHS liaison to the boys' lacrosse committee.

US Lacrosse provides input and guidance to both the NCAA and NFHS. Additionally, the recently-announced US Lacrosse boys' youth rules revisions for 2014 include points of emphasis on violent collisions, including "there is no justification for deliberate and excessively violent collision by any player at any youth level."

According to a recent video analysis study of 34 concussion incidents in Fairfax County (Va.) high school boys' games, most commonly injured players were unaware of pending contact. The study was co-sponsored by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE) and the US Lacrosse Sports Science and Safety Committee.

Coaches bear responsibility to support the rules, Merrill said.

"It's discouraging when you're on the sideline and you have to listen to how some coaches coach the game. You have to be careful of the messages we're delivering to athletes," he said. "We'll get there eventually. Hopefully we can continue to educate people on the reality of head injuries."

And players, too.

"The blindside defenseless hits are avoidable," Merrill said. "It was big here in Canada when Sidney Crosby sat out for so long. That really created a lot of awareness around the subject. It kind of trickled down, and hockey has made some really positive changes. He went through a whole playoffs and missed half a season because he didn't feel right. He probably could have played through a lot of those symptoms, but didn't feel right and he had the courage to stand up and get the necessary help before he came back."

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