In most sports, players are allowed to use their hands to touch the ball. The only problem with lacrosse is that is not like most other sports. This has caused many newcomers to question the legality of touching the ball with their hands.
Lacrosse players are not allowed to touch the ball with their hands. Players must use their lacrosse sticks to make direct contact with the ball. There is only one exception to this rule. Goalkeepers are permitted to use their hands on the crease to bat down a shot attempt from the other team.
To understand why lacrosse players are restricted from hand use when it comes to possessing the ball, it is necessary to take a look at the mechanics of lacrosse as a whole. Lacrosse is an unorthodox sport that has many underlying elements. Understanding some of the more subtle characteristics of lacrosse helps to explain why direct hand contact with the ball is strictly prohibited.
The Rules About Players’ Hands Touching the Ball in Lacrosse
In almost every instance in lacrosse, players cannot use their hands to control, maneuver, or touch the ball in any way.
Lacrosse is unlike most other sports in that it relies heavily on the use of a stick during live game play. Players use their lacrosse sticks to pass, shoot, and possess the ball on the offensive end. The lacrosse stick is essentially an extension of the player’s body that is used for every possible aspect of ball control.
Players are easily able to control the ball without direct use of their hands because the lacrosse stick is specifically designed for ball handling. There are three major parts to the lacrosse stick: the shaft, the head, and the pocket. These parts are illustrated in the image below. To learn more about the parts of a lacrosse stick, check out my article The Parts of a Lacrosse Stick: An Illustrated Guide.
If you look closely, the lacrosse stick roughly mimics the function of the hand as it used in other sports. The length of the lacrosse shaft is the is similar to the arm length leading up to the hand. The plastic lacrosse head is the equivalent of the skeletal framework of the hand. The soft, flexible lacrosse pocket is where the ball physically sits in the lacrosse stick, which resembles the supple nature of the palm where the ball typically rests.
These similarities are no coincidence. The structural layout of a lacrosse stick is optimized for maximal ball handling ability. This way, players can conveniently control the ball without ever having to physically touch it.
One Caveat to the Rule
So although field lacrosse players are generally restricted from contacting the ball with their hands, there is one instance where this rule does not apply.
Goalkeepers are allowed to bat the ball down with their hands to make a save and prevent a potential score for the opposition. But even this exception to the rule has extremely strict guidelines. For reference, I included the NCAA men’s lacrosse rule regarding this specific goalkeeper privilege.
The goalkeeper, in his own crease area, may stop or block the ball in any manner with his crosse or body. The goalkeeper may block the ball or bat it away with his hand, but he may not catch the ball with his hand. However, if the ball is outside the crease, the goalkeeper may not touch it with his hand even if he is within his crease.Section 20A, NCAA Men’s Lacrosse 2019 and 2020 Rules
To sum up the rule stated above, the goalkeeper must be positioned on the crease in order to touch the ball. Although they are permitted to contact the ball, they are restricted from even picking up or holding the ball in their hands.
Unfortunately, certain referees misinterpret the rules and allow goalkeepers to pick up or hold the ball. This usually does not have a serious effect on the outcome of the game. These referees usually just let this rule slide so that the goalkeeper can quickly get a ball that is stuck in the net.
The act of a goalkeeper using their hands to make a save is an extremely rare occurrence in lacrosse. In fact, when I read that goalkeepers were actually allowed to physically contact the ball with their hands, I had to double check the NCAA rule myself.
During my entire playing career, I do not think I ever saw a goalkeeper bat down the ball with their hands to make a save. If it did happen, I must have not been paying close attention. This just goes to show how uncommon this occasion is in lacrosse.
In my opinion, I believe that this rule was included just so that there would not have to be a penalty issued to the goalkeeper for a shot that ricocheted off their hands. This way, goalkeepers would not have to be overly conscious of their hand placement when attempting to make a save.
In essence, every player on the lacrosse field besides the goalkeeper is forbidden from touching the ball.
The Rationale as to Why Players Cannot Touch the Ball
There are several reasons as to why players are prohibited from touching the ball in lacrosse. The most prominent of these reasons are discussed below.
Would Take Away From the Originality of the Game
For one, hand touching would detract from the creativity of lacrosse. Players are drawn to the game because of how different it is from every other sport out there.
The challenge of having to develop a natural feel for the lacrosse stick and learn how to wield this piece of equipment as if it were their own arm is enticing to many potential athletes. An altogether different kind of hand eye coordination is required in lacrosse due in large part to the restrictive rules regarding hand touching.
If lacrosse sticks were taken out of the game and players were simply allowed to control the ball with their hands, lacrosse would cease to be special. The very nature of the sport would change.
Hand Contact with the Ball Would Give Offensive Players an Unfair Advantage
In addition, if hand contact were legalized, offensive ball carriers would have an inherent advantage over the defense.
It is tough enough on the defense to dislodge the ball from lacrosse sticks already. They have to deliver a forceful stick check precisely on the ball carrier’s stick to even have a chance at causing a turnover. Offensive lacrosse players are only getting better and better at protecting the ball from the defense.
If ball carriers were allowed to use their hands to safeguard the ball from defensive pressure, it would be nearly impossible for the opposition to knock the ball loose. Offensive players would just pin the ball in their lacrosse pocket using their hands as insurance against stick checks. There would be nothing stopping a ball carrier from bullying their way to the front of the goal and shooting a high percentage shot.
To put it simply, the balance between the offense and defense would be compromised if hand touching was legalized.
Do Lacrosse Players Ever Cheat and Touch the Ball?
Even though hand play is strictly forbidden, this does not mean that lacrosse players always follow this rule. There are times where players do try and cheat and use their hands to get an edge over their opponent.
The face off is game situation where it can get extremely tempting for players to use their hands. This is because it is challenging for referees to manage what exactly happens during the face off.
For those of you that do not know, the face off is the procedure by which two players from each lacrosse team vie for possession for the ball in the middle of the field after a goal has been scored or a quarter has ended. To learn more about what a face off is, check out my article The Lacrosse Face-Off: Everything That You Need to Know.
When the two designated face off players lock up and fight for possession, referees can hardly even see the ball amidst the chaos. This problem is only exacerbated when four other players sprint in from the wing area and surround the two face off players.
Face off players are also gifted with lightning quick hands. Sometimes, a face off player can grab the ball within a split second and be out and away with possession before a referee even has time to realize they cheated.
For these reasons, many face off players get tempted by the notion of simply slipping their fingers in and snagging the ball for themselves since there is a relatively high chance that they get away with it. This is especially true if the referee seems to be rather inexperienced.
Occasionally, players use their hands to fix the ball in their lacrosse pocket while cradling the ball.
Players cover their stick with their body and secretly use their top hand to hold the ball in place. They slyly use their fingers to secure the ball in their lacrosse stick. Obviously, this makes it a lot harder on the defense to dislodge the ball, even if they do land a powerful stick check.
This method of cheating is not seen nearly as much as the hand play during face-offs. This is because referees typically have a clear line of sight on the ball carrier as they cradle the ball. Nonetheless, it still does happen every now and again.
What is the Penalty for Illegally Touching the Lacrosse Ball?
If a player gets caught touching the ball during a lacrosse game, there is a penalty to be paid. But what is the exact nature of the penalty?
When a player gets caught deliberately touching the ball with their hands, an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty is issued (source). This is typically a minute long releasable penalty, meaning that the penalized player may be released from the penalty box if the opposition scores a goal during the one minute timeframe.
It is uncommon for this type of infraction to warrant an unreleasable penalty call from the referees.