Business & Finance

Helmet Sense: Holmdel Entrepreneurs Take Lead on Safety Gear for Female Athletes

Rob and Julie Stolker with their four daughters in the middle.
Image is an example of how girls play sports now without helmets.
Hummingbird Helmets. Credits: Hummingbird
Rob and Julie Stolker in their Holmdel home near the framed box of their original idea phase plans to design safety helmets for female athletes.
Hummingbird merchandise Credits: Hummingbird
Former NFL Player Shawn Springs
Hummingbird founder Rob Stolker with team at a trade show Credits: Hummingbird
Hummingbird Helmet Credits: Hummingbird

HOLMDEL, N.J. – Girls lacrosse is booming in the United States and gender parity is moving squarely into the safety arena for girls sports. More specifically, the conversation about helmets in girls lacrosse. This is not surprising in a game with reinforced sticks and hard balls possibly flying towards the heads of young ladies at ever increasing speeds. Change doesn't appear to come easy, however. 

There is an expectation of certain sport standards, methods of play and basic rules that guide a game. Included in such guidance is also what you wear, how you wear it and, in the case of lacrosse, who wears it. This is particularly true with helmets. Boys wear helmets and girls generally do not. Boys heads are protected and girls who do not wear them are not. Girls may likely soon be placed on par with the boys in lacrosse, however, as helmet requirements become part of the conversation. Studies indicate that number of girls concussions in lacrosse come close to football and female concussions may take twice as long to heal.

Many say it is about time for helmets.

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In Florida, new legislation was passed that mandates the use of headgear for girls lacrosse. In New Jersey and local schools, the conversations are becoming more common yet legislation remains elusive. Interestingly, while it is now 2017 for girl’s lacrosse, it is not unlike men’s football in 1893. It was an 1893 Army-Navy football game, in fact, that saw the first helmet. Prior to 1893, male football players wore no helmets at all.

Helmet History in Men’s Football

According to sportspasttimes.biz, the earliest consistent story about the beginning of the male football helmet goes back to an Annapolis shoemaker who created the first helmet for Admiral Joseph Mason Reeves (considered ‘the father of carrier aviation’), who had been advised by a Navy doctor that he would be risking death or “instant insanity” if he took another hit to the head. Prior to this moment in time, male players wore nothing at all. Much like girls lacrosse in 2017 in the local area.

Originally, the ‘playing hats’ were made of leather and held to their heads by three heavy leather straps. The first football helmets were called “head-harnesses”. Football helmets were not mandatory until the 1930’s and most of the 1890-1915 games were played without helmets. Year by year, more padding was added and from the 1920’s thru 1940’s, considered the Golden Age of college, pro and high school football, helmets were strictly of leather construction. That was the 1930’s and the beginning of helmets for men.

Lacrosse Helmets for Girls and Women

Today, in 2017, women’s lacrosse is reminiscent of 1893 football. Some wear helmets and some do not. There is also debate within coaches about the nature of play.  Some say the field of play will become more aggressive for girls and oppose adoption of helmets for them. U.S. Lacrosse continues to maintain the helmets are optional but in 2016 they did work with the standards organization, A.S.T.M. International, and approved two soft helmets for use in girls lacrosse. 

Enter Holmdel’s Hummingbird Sports

Hummingbird Sports in Holmdel asks, why shouldn't girls have protection for heir heads? That question became an idea. The idea became a mission and the mission became a company driven to change minds. More specifically, changing minds about how we protect the brain of the female lacrosse player.  The founders of the female sports helmet company; Hummingbird Sports are Julie and Rob Stolker. The Stolkers live in Holmdel in a busy household with four athletic daughters.   On their company website they explain the background of the unique name of their business; When trying to come up with a brand name, we wanted to encompass everything that makes a female athlete special. She is strong, beautiful, agile, and unique. And so is the Hummingbird. They have the ability to move their body swiftly and change direction quickly and smoothly, seemingly gliding from one place to another.  The Hummingbird is the only bird that can actually fly backwards.  Ancient American Indian folklore states that the Hummingbird was selected to represent and symbolize their lacrosse players. Ancient ancestors made the lacrosse stick in the image of a hummingbird tail feather. The Hummingbird represents speed, accuracy and agility, all attributes that lacrosse players desire. We encourage girls to take pride in what makes them unique. Hummingbird sports was conceived from a desire to keep our girls safe.

Today, Hummingbird Sports markets girls lacrosse helmets in five base colors: white, black, red, royal and navy. They special craft logos and can personalize them. The helmets have a convenient opening for easy looping through of a pony tail. Most importantly though the helmets are designed with cutting edge safety technology by partnering with Windpact, a helmet technolgy company run by former NFL player Shawn Springs.  The retail cost is $139 and there are special programs for schools requiring grant funding.  

Stolker says,  “We just want to get these helmets on every female lacrosse player and make the sport safer for them.  As parents of athletic girls, we have enjoyed watching them play various sports over the years. We have always encouraged them to try any sport that satisfied their competitive spirit. It has helped them grow in so many ways into the strong women they are becoming. They are making lifelong friends, developing team attitudes and leadership skills, and staying strong and healthy. When our daughters wanted to play lacrosse, we looked forward to watching them play this exciting, fast-growing sport. When we attended the first practice, we were stunned to see that no one was wearing a helmet. We went home and immediately went online to purchase helmets for them. There was one problem, we could not find a girl's lacrosse helmet anywhere. These girls were sent on the field with absolutely no head protection. It sounds insane, but that’s what has been going on for years. Instead of being frustrated (which we were) and just pulling our girls from the game, we set out to be the first to design a lacrosse helmet just for girls."

Sometimes, what is obvious to some is not obvious to others. In every culture, there are traditions and historical beliefs. This is particularly true in the sports world as well. Football, baseball and soccer all have their traditions and they do change over time as well. In girls' lacrosse, strong and talented players are using reinforced sticks and a hard ball with no head protection. The notion that the sport would be more aggressive with helmets draws a response from Stolker:

Seat Belt Analogy 

"Prior to wearing seat belts, folks complained that if there were seat belts in cars the result would be more aggressive and dangerous driving. It simply isn't the case.  Sports has evolved and we need to evolve with it."

"We gathered a group of passionate & determined friends & business partners who wanted to empower the female athlete and give her the same respect and recognition usually reserved for boys. Our girls don’t want boys’ hand-me-downs stamped out in pink. We want sports equipment and clothing that was made for us….by us! At Hummingbird Sports, our mission is to create a safer sporting experience while catering to female athletes and encouraging more girls to get involved in sports. We want the girls to be their own hero."

The Future

Legislation has passed in Florida mandating the use of helmets. This legislation begins next month in January of 2018. Hummingbird Sports is busy shipping helmets to Florida girls who will have their heads protected in the game. New Jersey has yet to see sponsored legislation. US Lacrosse has approved only two models for girls lacrosse, Hummingbird and Cascade. In 2004, US Lacrosse changed their helmet policy and required them for goalies only. They have not been supportive of mandating helmets for girls generally. US Lacrosse did release a 2017 clarification on approved helmets for teams at https://www.uslacrosse.org/sites/default/files/public/documents/rules/2017-headgear-clarification.pdf 

Also, a new non-profit has been launched called Pink Concussions, Inc. http://www.pinkconcussions.org which is committed to studying the data and informing the community about traumatic brain injury in women's sports. They provide scientific links on the differences between genders both in terms of the injuries themselves and the manner within which they are reported. 

Many other states have considered it and on a team by team basis the numbers are increasing. For example, there are schools in New York State who have been ordering helmets for their girls lacrosse teams since Hummingbird Helmets became available. The mission of Hummingbird Sports is to fill a void by 'creating a safer sporting experience while catering to female athletes.' Recently, they received endorsements for their products from two time Gold Medalist Megan Douty and record breaking attacker Alex Marino.

For more information about Hummingbird Sports you can go to their website at http://hummingbirdsports.com  or check out a recent video from fox news at http://www.fox29.com/local-news/214117944-video

 

 

 

Photo Credits - The Stolker Family

 

 

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