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Just An Awful Toll
John Underwood
August 12, 1985
Artificial turf is murder on football players; it causes more breaks, bruises, tears and strains than sod does
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August 12, 1985

Just An Awful Toll

Artificial turf is murder on football players; it causes more breaks, bruises, tears and strains than sod does

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"We were hopeful that it was a noble effort," says coach Joe Paterno. But Paterno found "you could never get a straight answer" from NAIRS. "They just didn't really know." He was grateful that no one tried to pressure him into installing turf at Beaver Stadium. "Grass, I'm convinced, is safer," he says.

In a departure from its own vague, contradictory report of 1975-77, which suggested a "higher overall rate of injury [on] artificial turf," NAIRS said in 1983 that, while more injuries occurred on artificial turf, when all minor time-loss categories were included, there was no statistical difference between surfaces when major injuries such as severely damaged knees and ankles were studied.

"Minor" injuries, in the doublespeak of such surveyors, include such items as sprains, strains, contusions and abrasions—injuries a dedicated player might take into a game. "Turf toe," by this definition, is a minor injury. It is a painful hyperextension of the big toe that occurs almost exclusively on artificial turf, and it doesn't seem minor to players who miss games because of it. And NAIRS coordinator John Powell admits that significant knee injuries are slightly more common on turf than on grass.

Undersubscribed, NAIRS went out of business last year, but Powell continues to serve the NFL as a one-man, part-time injury analyst. An athletic trainer for 20 years, but never a head trainer in football, he is now an associate professor of phys ed at San Diego State. He says he has never had the funding to dispense injury data on a regular basis.

Powell was asked if his findings showed turf to be no more dangerous than grass. He said, "It depends on what you call dangerous. There are many definitions." How about anything that gets a player hurt? "Are you talking about time-loss from games?" Just anything that gets a player hurt, injured, damaged in one way or another. "Well, in that case, you'd have to say that turf is more dangerous, but there are many variables."

It is, of course, always easy to find the NFL culpable for its injury problems. The league, after all, is a profit-oriented enterprise to which little credit for player empathy has ever been given or deserved. Such old critics of turf as Alan Page and Larry Csonka see the cynicism at work. "It's cheaper for the NFL to get new players than rip out the turf," says ex-Viking Page. "Players," says ex-Dolphin fullback Csonka, have "always been the easiest thing to replace."

This is a view that the NFL Players Association has thrice taken to Congress in an attempt to get a moratorium on the installation of artificial turf, the argument being that it is a consumer product that has not been proved safe. Lately, the NFLPA has been doing its own injury analysis, compiled from the weekly injury reports. The association found, not surprisingly, that injuries were up nearly 20% in 1984 as compared with '83, and that in "each area of this data studied—injury duration, playing position, injury type, and injury severity—synthetic surfaces were more dangerous than natural surfaces."

The NFLPA found that the average turf injury took longer to heal, that the number of players placed on injured reserve increased by a third and that the number of missed games doubled when the injuries occurred on turf.

The NFL's failings at preventive medicine are manifest, but what about the colleges? Have they done any better? Alas, no. Theirs is an even greater culpability. The first artificial surface laid on a college field was in 1968. After 17 years of irresponsible leadership, there are 81 turfed football fields in Division I alone—55 in I-A (five more than grass fields) and 26 in I-AA. Ersatz grass covers the college game like a mustard plaster. Entire conferences have been sealed up, even in places where they cannot use snow and slush as an excuse. All nine Southwest Conference schools have carpets. Once the field at Missouri is laid in Omniturf this fall, the Big Eight Conference will be totally turfed.

Some schools, to be sure, have seen the light. Last year South Carolina plowed up its AstroTurf and went back to grass. Rice is planning to do the same with its AstroTurf. Mississippi has gone back to grass, and the Southeastern Conference is now down to only four of 10 teams with turf. But all five "northern" teams in the Pacific-10 play on turf, and when Penn State engages its biggest Eastern rivals—West Virginia, Pitt, Boston College, et al.—away from home, it plays on synthetic turf. And so on, ad nauseam.

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