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A Fight Over Turf
Peter King
November 01, 1993
Three recent injuries on AstroTurf have underscored NFL players' calls for a return to grass
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November 01, 1993

A Fight Over Turf

Three recent injuries on AstroTurf have underscored NFL players' calls for a return to grass

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The NFL Players Association did not win concessions regarding artificial turf in the collective bargaining agreement signed with the owners in June, though NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw says the union pressed as hard as it could for more grass fields. "NFL owners actually own maybe two or three stadiums in the league, and the rest are municipally owned," he says. "So it's not their decision to make. But we believe, as we always have, that players are hurt by the turf."

Of course, injuries and football go together like the Houston Oilers and under-achievement. Injuries will never be done away with, even if grass grows in every stadium. The Redskins have been decimated by injuries this year, and all the major ones—to tackle Jim Lachey, quarterback Mark Rypien, defensive end Charles Mann and linebacker Andre Collins—happened on grass. And even noncontact injuries occur on grass; witness Dan Marino's severed Achilles tendon at verdant Cleveland Stadium on Oct. 10.

So what exactly is wrong with AstroTurf? One complaint is that while it provides greater traction and, consequently, increased velocity, that same traction is a terrible liability when a player makes a sudden stop. When Davis and Emtman put on the brakes, their shoes dug into the AstroTurf and stopped cold. But the momentum of large, swift athletes cannot be arrested in an instant. Something has to give, and that something is often a fragile joint—a knee or an ankle. "When you twist and turn the foot [on AstroTurf]," Phoenix Cardinal team physician Russell Chick says, "it doesn't give like on natural turf. The foot will stay stationary."

Then there is the pounding that players take on AstroTurf. The thin carpet of synthetic fiber lies atop a layer of foam approximately half an inch thick, which is in turn spread on a base of porous asphalt. The surface, say the players, is far less resilient than grass.

This year players are directing much of their wrath at Veterans Stadium, where the five-year-old carpeting is rock-hard and in a sorry state of disrepair. Defensive tackle Keith Millard, an eight-year NFL veteran in his first year with the Eagles, says, "Every player hates playing here because the turf is unsafe and dangerous, by far the worst in the league. It's uneven, and the seams are exposed and split apart." Millard's teammate, cornerback Eric Allen, who has played his entire five-year career with the Eagles, adds, "It's bad just to walk on this stuff, never mind trying to play football on it."

Says Greg Grillone, the stadium director at Veterans Stadium, "It's not practical to have a grass field. I haven't seen evidence that AstroTurf is responsible for injuries. But with all the injuries this year, it docs make you scratch your head."

Indeed, league officials and front-office personnel maintain that the studies that have been done over the years have offered no proof that AstroTurf is more dangerous than grass. And the Balsam Corporation, the St. Louis-based company that purchased AstroTurf Industries from Monsanto in 1986, vigorously defends its product. Balsam has been named as a defendant in fewer than 10 damage suits relating to playing-field injuries, and the company says that it has never been "proven liable in litigation brought against it for injuries on AstroTurf." Says Balsam CEO Mike McGraw, "Everything that we've seen is that there is no significant difference in level or type of injuries on synthetic surfaces."

As for the study conducted by Powell, even he urges that it be regarded with caution. "No one disputes that players are sorer after playing on artificial turf," he says, "but whether it is the single causative agent for injuries more than other factors, I don't believe you can say that." Still, his statistics are intriguing. Powell examined three types of knee injuries that occurred in the NFL on grass and on AstroTurf from 1980 through '89. (The study showed that 45.9% of the games in that decade were played on grass and 46.5% on AstroTurf; other brands of artificial turf were not included in the study.) For each of these injuries there was a somewhat greater incidence on AstroTurf than on grass. However, when Powell examined injuries during special teams play—even though the sample was small—there was a marked difference: 223 injuries on AstroTurf, 164 on grass. Powell further concluded that 54 knee injuries were "attributable to participation on AstroTurf." Among those 54 episodes, Powell identified special teams plays on AstroTurf as the combination most likely to lead to knee injury. "Of the 18 ACL sprains attributable to AstroTurf...14 to members of the kicking unit may have been prevented had there been no participation on AstroTurf," he wrote.

So would it be worth the expense to rip out the artificial turf in the seven open-air stadiums that use it? Would it be worth trying to install grass in the NFL's seven domed stadiums, which was once viewed as horticultural folly but could someday be feasible? (The Pontiac Silverdome, home of the Detroit Lions, will have grass inside for World Cup soccer games next year. During a soccer test there last summer, temporary grass thrived.)

Stadium administrators insist that the cost of maintaining a grass field is prohibitive compared with that of maintaining artificial turf. But in the case of football-only stadiums, that is not true. The Chicago Bears switched from AstroTurf to grass at Soldier Field in 1988 after finding that the initial cost for installing AstroTurf was slightly more than $1 million and the cost of putting in grass was around $700,000. "It would cost an additional $25,000 to $40,000 to maintain a grass field," says Tim LeFevour, the Bears' director of administration. "Over 10 years the cost of grass will even out with the cost for AstroTurf." And 10 years is the approximate life span of an AstroTurf carpel.

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