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You would think, therefore, that the colleges must know something that goes against the sporadic but nevertheless alarming flow of evidence about football injuries on artificial turf. The best independent studies on the subject—by Dr. James Garrick and Dr. Harry H. Kretzler Jr., in Seattle; and by Blyth and Frederick Mueller in North Carolina—found, as early as 1971, that the rate of football injuries on turf was as much as 50% higher than that on grass.
Well, take heed, brethren. Three years ago, the NCAA added a research coordinator, Eric Zemper, to its staff in Mission, Kans., and although football injuries represented only "about 10 percent" of his lab time, Zemper worked up figures on three years of data gleaned from "about 50" schools. The result is a computerized study covering 750,000 "athlete exposures" and 5,500 reported injuries.
And what do they show? That the rate of injury on artificial turf is "approximately 50 percent higher" than on natural grass. "A significant difference," says Zemper. For a time at midseason in 1984, college players were getting hurt on turf almost twice as often as on grass. Over the full three years, Zemper found "a consistent pattern of higher injury rates on artificial surfaces, whether looking at total injuries, games vs. practices, minor vs. major or just knee injuries."
Zemper, who has since left the NCAA, says he was not amazed that NCAA schools were still laying carpet. "I'm not amazed by anything," he says. "I was concerned, but I couldn't speak for the NCAA. I couldn't do anything but give them the information. I did so on request. I sent the findings to one school when it was considering putting in turf. They put it in anyway."
The first and most sacred responsibility of the custodians of any sport is to make it as safe as possible for its participants. Early enough the football powers were warned: There was an injury problem that could be linked to artificial turf. The evidence cried out for a full review. Instead, it got a cocked eyebrow. More than a decade later, a respected coach like LaVell Edwards of national champion Brigham Young can say he "doesn't like [turf], but I haven't seen a survey." A Joe Paterno has to "guess" that turf is as bad as he thinks it is. Even Davey Nelson of the NCAA rules committee maintains, "We have nothing conclusive."
Here, for the record, is what the administrators of football, both college and pro, have been deaf to for the last 15 years. It is the unremitting background music of American football.
Among the early voices in the wilderness was Larry Csonka's. An acknowledged he-man among men, seemingly impervious to pain and the sight of his own blood, Csonka was nonetheless adamant in his condemnation of artificial surfaces. With his "turf toes" traumatized and one tree trunk of a knee forever damaged in 1976, when, it was "glued" to the turf at Giants Stadium and struck from the side (his ligaments were too tough to tear so they ripped fragments of bone away when they snapped loose), Csonka now observes, "Technology has advanced to the stage where it is capable of finishing every player in the league years before his time."
Because of the exceptional musculature of his legs, Csonka is convinced that he would never have had a knee injury had it not been for artificial turf. He now lives with a chronically sore neck, left knee and elbows, and feet so tender he has difficulty wearing leather shoes. One toe had to be operated on. "My worst enemy was that damned turf," he says.
"I detest it," says N.C. State coach Tom Reed.