The sport of lacrosse is comprised of some rather unconventional rules that can be a bit puzzling to incoming players. One specific rule that new players want to understand in particular is whether or not they can hit someone with their stick in lacrosse.
Lacrosse defenders are allowed to hit an opponent’s stick or an opponent’s gloves with their own lacrosse stick in an attempt to dislodge the ball. However, a slashing penalty can be called on the lacrosse defender if they swing their stick at an opponent with vicious intent or reckless abandon.
But what constitutes vicious intent or reckless abandon? This is a grey area that even lacrosse referees occasionally have trouble defining. To help you better understand the rules regarding when you can hit someone with a stick in lacrosse, I will run through the explicit rules concerning defensive stick checks and provide some clear cut examples of what a fundamental defensive stick check looks like.
The Rules Concerning the Legality of Defensive Stick Checks in Lacrosse
Over the years, the lacrosse community has become more and more stringent with the rules surrounding defenders hitting opposing players with their lacrosse stick, otherwise known as defensive stick checks.
It is in the best interest of players, coaches, and fans to promote player safety above all else. For this reason, the lacrosse higher-ups have outlined explicit rules for referees to help them differentiate between a legal defensive check and an illegal slash.
Contact Must Be Limited to the Opponent’s Stick and Gloves
When people are first exposed to the game of lacrosse and see defenders whacking opposing ball carriers with their lacrosse stick, they mistakenly assume that defenders can rain down unlimited checks on the opposing team with no consequences. This is not the case.
Although forceful contact of the lacrosse stick is legal, this contact is primarily limited to the opponent’s stick and gloves. This is because the purpose of a defensive stick check is to disrupt the stick handling ability of the opposing ball carrier, not to maim the other player. By attacking the opponent’s stick and gloves, defenders are still able to generate turnovers without risking severe harm to the other player.
However, there are certain exceptions to this rule. There are certain cases where the opposing ball carrier utilizes some part of their body (other than the head or neck) to protect their stick from the defender. Under these circumstances, a defender may accidentally strike the opposing ball carrier in some place other than the stick or gloves because of this protective maneuver.
This incidental contact is not deemed a penalty. The fault lies with the ball carrier for attempting to ward off the oncoming defensive stick check. Incidental contact with forearms and upper arm area is common in lacrosse since ball carriers will go to extreme lengths to protect the ball from defensive pressure.
This is the main contributing factor as to why many lacrosse newcomers are under the false impression that they can assail an opponent’s arms with stick checks with little to no regard for the other player’s safety. Recently, the lacrosse community has done a much better job of communicating these facts to incoming players.
No Stick Checks to the Head or Neck Area Under ANY Circumstances
The number one way to draw a flag for a slashing penalty is landing a forceful blow on the opponent’s head or neck area.
Referees are real sticklers about this particular aspect of defensive checks. Even though lacrosse players wear helmets, the lacrosse community wants to eliminate unnecessary head contact wherever possible.
It may seem like a given to avoid the head and neck area of the opponent, but you would be surprised at how easy it is for a defender to strike the opponent’s head or neck if they aren’t careful. Even the most experienced lacrosse defenders fall victim to negligence every so often.
The rate at which slashes to the head and neck area occur has dropped significantly in recent years as penalties have been more rigidly enforced.
It is worth noting that not all lacrosse stick contact with the head or neck area may warrant a penalty. In order for a slashing penalty to be called, the contact must be forceful and significant. If a defender lightly brushes their stick on an opponent’s helmet, a slashing penalty will not be issued.
Checks Performed with Malicious Intent or Reckless Abandon are Strictly Forbidden
A lacrosse defender can adhere to the previous guidelines of limiting their contact to the opponent’s stick and gloves and may still be called for a slashing penalty. How can this be?
It all has to do with the additional rules put in place regarding slashing. The NCAA Rulebook for men’s lacrosse said it best by outlining the illegal act of slashing with the following statement:
The key components here are deliberate viciousness and reckless abandon.
As far as deliberate viciousness, it is blatantly obvious when a defender strictly intends to maim the opponent and carries no real intention of dislodging the ball. Once a referee sees that a defender is simply trying to injure the ball carrier, they will issue a slashing penalty immediately. There is no room in the sport of lacrosse for these kinds of spiteful actions.
Reckless abandon is a bit tougher to detect as compared to deliberate viciousness. This particular aspect of slashing is much more subjective, differing from referee to referee.
I have been a part of games where defenders pillaged opposing ball carriers with brutal stick checks play after play without any repercussions. On the other hand, I have also participated in games where it seemed like a defender couldn’t touch the opposing ball carrier with their lacrosse stick without warranting a penalty from the officials.
Generally, a telltale sign of a brash, uncontrolled stick check is if the defender winds up their lacrosse stick like they are prepping for a baseball swing. As soon as a referee witnesses a defender torque their lacrosse stick back with full extension, they will throw the flag as soon as the check is thrown.
Another solid indicator of a reckless stick check is if a defender only uses one hand to wind up and strike the opponent’s crosse. At the collegiate level, this check is legal. But at the youth and high school level, this sort of check is frowned upon and typically warrants a slashing penalty from the referees.
Although the subjectivity of slashing calls can be a bit perplexing for defenders, it can be overcome. If you are a lacrosse defender yourself, I would recommend trying to get a feel for how the referees are calling the game prior to pushing the envelope of what’s legal versus illegal.
How Illegal Defensive Stick Checks are Penalized
Although there are plenty of rules in place to dissuade lacrosse players from performing illegal stick checks, they do still happen every so often. These violations cannot go unpunished. For this reason, there is a fixed process by which referees go about penalizing players that violate the defensive stick checking rules.
As aforementioned, Slashing is the technical term for the penalty issued to a defender who has performed an illegal defensive stick. Slashing can be penalized with varying degrees of punishment depending on the severity of the transgression. Obviously, more malicious or reckless checks warrant more severe penalties.
The player responsible for the slashing penalty must sit in the penalty box for an allotted time before they are able to step back onto the field again. The specific amount of time they have to sit out for is determined by the referee.
A player may have to sit out for 1 minute, 2 minutes, or 3 minutes depending on the severity of the penalty.
In addition, the penalty may be deemed releasable or non-releasable. With a releasable penalty, the player that committed the foul can be released from the penalty box if the opposing team scores. With an unreleasable penalty, the player must serve out their whole allotted term before they can step back on the field, regardless of whether or not the other team scores.
The majority of slashes are one minute releasable penalties. However, there are cases where a defender may have been extremely reckless or vicious with their defensive check. Under these circumstances, it is not uncommon for a player to be issued a two minute or three minute unreleasable penalty.
A player that shows definitive malintent may even be disqualified from competition. This case is extremely rare in lacrosse, but it is a possibility.
It is important to note that the lacrosse stick does not need to make contact with the opponent for a slashing penalty to be called. This phenomenon is much more prevalent at the youth level where both coaches and officials are trying to instill good habits into young players.
For example, if a youth player swings their lacrosse stick at another player like a baseball bat, they may receive a slashing penalty even if they completely whiff.
Examples of What a Fundamental Defensive Stick Check Looks Like
To really get a glimpse of how to conduct a proper defensive stick check, I provided some film on Chris Sabia.
Chris Sabia was an All-American defender at Penn State for the 2019 D1 Men’s Lacrosse Season. His on ball defense is a marvel to witness. The stick checks he throws are precise and under control, yet they still carry a significant amount of force to strip the ball carrier of possession. Click the video below to see for yourself!
Note how Sabia always keeps constant pressure on the exposed bottom hand of the ball carrier every time they decide to press the issue and attack the cage. Rather than trying to go for the home run check, Sabia always maintains solid defensive positioning and picks his spots on when to time his stick checks.
When the opposing ball carrier has a momentary lapse of stick protection, Sabia jumps on the opportunity. If the situation does not call for a stick check, Sabia stays disciplined and relies on his defensive footwork to keep the ball carrier at bay.
Example of What a Slashing Penalty Looks Like
The video shown below is a blatant example of a slashing penalty. The defender checks the helmet of the opponent and makes no contact whatsoever with the opponent’s crosse.
This video below is yet another example of a slash. This time, the defender winds up and contacts the knee of the defender without checking any part of the opponent’s crosse.
You can see why the lacrosse community has enacted stricter rules to prevent these types of injury risk situations. No coach, fan, or player ever wants to see a slash happen during the game, which is why these explicit rules have been instituted.
Why Lacrosse Players are Allowed to Stick Check Each Other
Now that you understand the gist of the specific rules regarding defensive checks, you likely want to know why they are legal in the first place.
Levels the Playing Field Between the Offense and Defense
First and foremost, the primary reason that defensive stick checks are legal is that it levels the playing field between the offense and the defense.
Once a talented offensive player acquires possession of the ball in lacrosse, it is extremely challenging to get the ball back. Ball carriers are able to keep the ball within their lacrosse pocket by using centripetal force to their advantage, a technique commonly known as cradling.
Without defensive stick checks, ball carriers would be able to cradle the ball all the live long day. They wouldn’t ever have to worry about losing the ball because there would be no way for the defense to disrupt their stick handling ability. Body checks are effective at keeping opposing ball carriers away from the goal, but they are not nearly as effective at generating turnovers.
Defensive stick checks are the primary means by which the defense generates turnovers. By disrupting the stick handling ability of the opposing ball carrier, defenders are afforded the opportunity to strip the ball carrier of possession.
In addition, defensive stick checks can be utilized to pressure the opposing ball carrier into making mistakes. If a defender constantly harasses an opponent with stick checks while they are trying to get rid of the ball, the ball carrier might panic and throw an errant pass out of bounds. The same defensive tactics could be applied when the opposing player is attempting to shoot.
Defensive stick checks also keeps opposing dodgers on their toes. The prospect of losing the ball while dodging against a skilled defender is a very real possibility because of defensive stick checks. As a result, dodgers are a bit more weary when they attack the cage because they don’t want to be the ones that cost their team a possession.
Makes the Game Move Faster
Secondly, defensive stick checks up the tempo of the game.
One of the major points of emphasis in the sport of lacrosse is speed. In fact, lacrosse has been nicknamed The Fastest Sport On Two Feet. It did not acquire this nickname by accident. Lacrosse is specifically set up to allow players to run freely and showcase their speed on the field.
Defensive stick checks help to promote this rapid style of play because it keeps the ball moving back and forth from one end of the field to the other.
Every time that a defender lands a stick check and generates a turnover, they have to flip the ball to the opposite half so that their offense could get the chance to score some goals. As a result, the ball flies around very quickly between both sides of the field, almost like a game of ping pong.
This keeps the action rolling since the ball is constantly moving. It also keeps players actively engaged since they have to log in some considerable mileage ferrying the ball back and forth.
Plus, turnovers caused by defensive stick checks could potentially lead to fast break opportunities. There is no better way to speed up a sport than by upping the rate of fast breaks.
Adds a Unique, Exciting Element to the Sport
Lastly, defensive stick checks also add a signature element to the game of lacrosse that few other sports have.
How many other sports can you think of where you can legally whack someone with a stick? The answer is not many.
Lacrosse is the perfect activity for athletes that are searching for a way to showcase their physicality. When young aspiring athletes witness the remarkable precision and control that defenders possess when picking apart ball carriers, it helps to draw a new crowd to the sport.
This is why so many lacrosse players are multi-sport athletes. They may not have been exposed to the sport initially, but as they continued to delve into the more exciting aspects of it, their curiosity gets piqued.
Athletes that are stuck in the offseason want nothing more than to get back into the thick of things. The physical nature of lacrosse attracts these athletes, such as football players and hockey players, that want to have a reliable stress outlet.
So the short answer is yes, you can hit people with your stick in lacrosse. If you want to experience the thrill of this unorthodox physicality for yourself, go out and sign up for a local lacrosse league! Trust me, you won’t regret it.