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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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Chicago bear wide receiver Wendell Davis looked over his shoulder into the blue sky above Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium on Oct. 10 and saw the football spiraling toward him. Davis, in full gallop, had Eagle cornerback Mark McMillian right with him, and the pass was a bit under-thrown. Davis figured he would have to stop, turn and outjump McMillian for the ball.

At the precise moment that Davis planted his feet to jump for the ball, his turf shoes dug into the AstroTurf and held solid, as though they were nailed to the carpet. Davis felt something snap simultaneously in both knees, and he flopped to the artificial turf as if he'd been shot. He began screaming in pain. He tried to move his legs but couldn't. When the trainers and team doctor reached him and straightened both legs, Davis looked down to see why it felt as if someone were stabbing him in both knees with knives.

"I saw the doctor trying to find my kneecaps," Davis said last week from his hospital bed in Chicago. "They found my kneecaps up in my thighs."

The patellar tendon is the rope of tissue that keeps the kneecap in place and stabilizes the joint. Davis had severed both of his patellar tendons. On Oct. 11 the knees were surgically repaired, and Davis's legs I were encased in plaster casts from thigh to ankle. He is confident that he will play football again, and his doctors are hoping for the best. For now, though, there is not much Davis can do but sit at home and read. His immediate choices: the Bible and How to Handle Adversity by Charles Stanley.

On the same afternoon that Davis was injured, Indianapolis Colt defensive tackle Steve Emtman turned sharply to pursue Dallas's Emmitt Smith and crashed to the artificial turf of the Hoosier Dome. His anterior cruciate ligament, medial collateral ligament and patellar tendon all ripped violently. Emtman is gone for the remainder of this season and may not be ready when camp opens in '94.

One week after Davis and Emtman went down, New York Giant wideout Mike Sherrard caught a pass and after a long run pulled up short on the artificial turf at Giants Stadium. He had partially dislocated his left hip and suffered a fracture of the hip socket. He, too, is gone for the season, and on Oct. 20 he was back in the hospital with a blood clot in his hip.

There are two factors linking the injuries of Davis, Emtman and Sherrard: None of the three had been touched by another player at the moment his injury occurred; and each injury was sustained on a field covered by artificial turf. Those circumstances have reignited the smoldering debate over the safety of artificial turf, which is currently used by 15 of the 28 NFL teams. After watching Davis and some of his Eagle players go down on AstroTurf (the only brand of artificial turf now in use in the NFL), Philadelphia trainer Otho Davis says he has finally come to believe that there is a link, between artificial turf and injuries. And the team physician of the Los Angeles Rams, Dr. Clarence Shields, says, "I know [artificial] turf is causing some injuries." Which is what players have been saying for years.

Last week the NFL appointed a committee of six physicians to study injuries. And in September the league launched a study of the relationship between injuries and the various kinds of shoes worn on artificial turf. "The situation cannot continue as it is," says an injury committee member, Dr. Joseph Torg, a professor of orthopedic surgery at the University of Pennsylvania and the team physician for the Eagles. Torg says that prodding the NFL to do something about injuries "is like moving an archaic monster.... But finally they're doing something."

While the formation of these committees is a welcome development, it follows by nearly a year a published study by one of the NFL's own experts that reveals that a greater number of certain knee injuries occurred on AstroTurf than on grass between 1980 and '89. John Powell, a research associate and trainer at the University of Iowa and director of the league's Injury Surveillance System, wrote in the November-December issue of the American Journal of Spoils Medicine, "Overall, there is a tendency for AstroTurf to be associated with an increased risk for knee sprains and MCL [medial collateral ligament] and ACL [anterior cruciate ligament] injuries under very specific conditions." Yet he concluded, "It may be that participation on AstroTurf is the most important of all risk factors or it may be well down the list of importance." Another factor, Powell suggested, could be the choice of shoes worn on AstroTurf. "Further research," he wrote, "is needed to resolve the issue."

Presumably that's what the new committees will embark on. In any case, the NFL agrees that Powell's study is inconclusive. "This study does not tell us anything new about the overall risks of playing on artificial turf," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello says.

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