SI Vault
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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There are reasons why football is played on grass instead of on a terrazzo floor or on I-95, and most of them are good ones. They are pretty much the same reasons football should not be played on artificial surfaces, those scouring pads over asphalt whose plastic hides are now spread across more than 200 of the football fields of America. But don't bother asking the administrators of football to list the reasons for you.

The administrators and entrepreneurs of football have been so busy telling you that black is white and that black and blue and open-wound pink are the colors football players are supposed to be that they just haven't had time to tell you how bad the stuff really is. Some of them don't even know. Most of them apparently don't want to know. Certainly what they don't know won't hurt them.

Those poor young fools whom it does hurt can tell, all right, but nobody seems to listen. Not even Congress, which heard their grievances on three separate occasions—in 1972, 1977 and 1978—nodded politely and did nothing. Most of the poor older fools who coach the game can tell you, too, and some try to do so, but they don't try hard enough because theirs is often a divided loyalty and nobody listens to them, either.

So we will tell you for them.

Above all the testimony that nobody pays any attention to, above all the grim statistics that trace the toll of ruptured ligaments and tortured flesh, these facts stand out:

1) Artificial turf does not have to be mowed, watered or fertilized. It looks as good in December as it does in August and shows up well on television. When it rains, the players' numbers are still legible. It is wonderful for the economics of sport in that it keeps the gates of commerce open year-round, weather or not. Therefore, the administrators of football continue to order more grass ripped up and more carpet laid down. 2) Artificial turf is murder on football players. In laying down their carpets, sports administrators ignore the ongoing cries of "Enough!" from the young men who suffer on them, and they are undeterred by the fact that, after all these years, there is still no comprehensive study to show that artificial turf is a safe alternative. To the contrary, there is every reason to believe that it is not.

In 1974, the Stanford Research Institute International completed a six-year study of injuries for the National Football League. SRI is a formidable group, numbering 3,000 employees, and its report to the NFL was damning. It concluded that the rules and equipment of the game needed to be brought in line with a hard reality: Bigger, stronger and faster players had achieved an astonishing capacity to hurt one another and were doing so at a record pace. Nowhere was this more evident than on artificial turf.

The study found that in 17 out of 17 categories, natural grass was safer to play on than the artificial surfaces then being produced for football. Safer for the head, the face, the teeth, the neck, the shoulders, the arms, the elbows, the wrists, the hands, the fingers, the thorax, the feet, the toes, the back, the hips, the ankles. Despite some claims that turf would reduce the incidence of knee injuries, the bane of football, SRI found that more knees were injured on it.

SRI made a follow-up survey of 1,002 NFL players in 1978 for the NFL Management Council and the Players Association, and got an overwhelming negative on synthetic turf: 83% preferred grass. Those players who favored turf were usually the ones who could afford to worry more about their footing than their skins: e.g., placekickers and punters. Moreover, the '78 survey showed that the seven stadium fields the players preferred to play on were all grass, with Miami's Orange Bowl heading the list. The bottom 10 were all plastic-covered, with the Houston Astrodome leading that list.

SRI offered an ominous comment on the study: "As in prior years...a significantly greater number of major and minor game injuries were sustained when playing on all three types of synthetic surfaces [Poly-Turf, Tartan Turf and AstroTurf]." Joe Grippo, an executive director of SRI, said in 1978, and repeats now, that his group's conclusion was that "synthetic surfaces could not be justified, not on an injury-prevention basis, not on a relative-cost basis." The alleged economic advantages are a poor tradeoff for the human misery that synthetic surfaces are causing.

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