Turf war: Synthetic fields seemed like a good idea at one time, but not anymore
Artificial playing surfaces are becoming more and more common — but athletes are the ones paying the price
“If a horse can’t eat it, I don’t want to play on it.” — Richie Allen
“I believe there ought to be a constitutional amendment outlawing AstroTurf and the designated hitter.” — Crash Davis
The NFL has a turf war. Some of the league’s players have launched an online campaign against synthetic turf fields, using Sunday’s Super Bowl to drive home their point. Odell Beckham, the Rams wide receiver, planted his left foot to catch a pass and crumpled to the synthetic grass field clutching his left knee. He was unable to return to the game and likely will undergo surgery to repair a torn ACL — the same one he tore in 2020.
NFL players — Nick Bosa, Nick Chubb and George Kittle among them — have launched an online petition #FlipTheTurf campaign hoping that public opinion will help convince the league to convert all artificial fields into real grass. Sixteen NFL teams play their home games on artificial turf. Thirteen of those teams were among the 16 teams with the most injuries in 2021.
Athletes have been complaining about fake grass almost since its inception, some five decades ago when Allen was hitting home runs in the major leagues. Many athletes feel synthetic fields contribute to injuries and there is plenty of evidence to support the charge.
The NFL Players Union cites research that indicates a 28% higher rate of non-contact lower extremity injuries on artificial turf compared to real grass, as well as a 32% increase in non-contact knee injuries and a 69% increase in non-contact foot and ankle injuries.
Major League Baseball introduced fake grass (AstroTurf) in 1966. It grew in popularity and at one point half the teams in the National League played on artificial turf, but it fell out of favor. In 2019, there were only two artificial fields in the majors; now there are five (out of 30).
The artificial grass is stickier and there is little give when a foot is planted on it, which puts more pressure on joints; it is also a harder surface, which leads to bruised bodies. Athletes run faster on synthetic fields, which in turn means abnormally large and strong men are hitting harder (and landing harder). It’s also hotter on the feet. One study by the University of Nevada-Las Vegas revealed artificial grass can reach a temperature of 170 degrees. Another study by the city of Las Vegas measured temperatures as high as 180 degrees. Hence, the need for night games.
Anyway, turf and sports is a recipe for injuries and all kinds of other health issues.
In 2020, the NFLPA formally asked team owners to “proactively change all field surfaces to natural grass” because of injury concerns.
Meanwhile, NFL players are speaking up on the internet. From Kittle: “I don’t like artificial turf, I love grass! It’s better for my body, our team performance, AND the planet. Help us #FlipTheTurf by signing the petition.”
Kittle and Bosa both play for the 49ers, who were part of a turf-field controversy in 2020, when six of the team’s players — including Bosa and Kittle — sustained non-contact injuries on the artificial surface at MetLife Stadium. Afterward coaches and players blamed the injury on the turf.
“Every player is one play away from altering his career forever when playing on turf,” wrote Bosa. “I experienced the bad side of this, and it could have been avoided.”
Beckham’s injury could alter his career. The 29-year-old receiver missed nine games with a torn ACL in his left knee in 2020. He suffered the same injury in the same knee in Sunday’s Super Bowl. He signed a one-year deal when he joined the Rams at midseason, so his future is clouded by the knee injury.
Artificial grass does have advantages over natural grass. It’s much easier to maintain and it’s much more resistant to damage from cleated shoes and the heavy, stop-and-go traffic of fast 250-pound men, as well as the many challenges of weather. It also doesn’t require water.
For all these reasons, artificial fields are used at every level of sports. There are an estimated 12,000 to 13,000 artificial fields in the U.S. and they are increasing by about 1,200 to 1,500 per year, according to the Synthetic Turf Council (Utah has seen a rise in artificial high school fields, as well).
Notwithstanding, it would be difficult to argue that the benefits outweigh the risks. According to the National Center for Health Research, a nationwide study studied concussions for 17,549 high school and college football players over a three-year span. The study showed that the two causes of concussions resulted from contact with another player and contact with the ground.
“When looking at those that occurred from contact with the ground, the researchers found that head contact with turf was disproportionately associated with concussions,” wrote Katerina Kerska of the NCHR. “They also found that more serious concussions were associated with artificial turf than grass.” She also noted a serious increase in injuries to the ankle and knee on artificial turf, as well as heat-related illness and injury, and turf abrasions, which can result in serious infections, such as staph or MRSA.
Artificial fields seemed like a good idea at the time they were created, but after decades of use it’s become clear they came with a price for the human body.