Push to switch to natural grass fields in wake of injuries on artificial turf fields
By David Sewall
Detroit Lions quarterback Jared Goff takes the snap, fakes a hand-off to his left before spinning back and throwing a quick screen to Kalif Raymond in a divisional matchup against the Green Bay Packers in November 2022.
Packers Pro-Bowl LB Rashawn Gary doesn't fall for the fake hand-off. Instead, he turns, planting his right foot in the artificial surface of Detroit’s Ford Field, Gary cuts back quickly in pursuit of the receiver Raymond.
For all intent and purposes, this looks like a routine play. But as Gary cuts, his right leg immediately gives out, and Gary suffers an ACL tear that ends his 2022-23 season.
Artificial turf was hailed as a game changing innovation when it was introduced in 1966. But as incidents like the Gary injury become more common, league officials, fans, and especially players, are giving artificial turf a serious look. There is now no denying the underlying issue that artificial turf playing surfaces are detrimental to football players across the country.
Artificial turf has become the predominant playing surface at the high school, college, and professional football level.
Following the introduction of AstroTurf in 1966, it became rapidly popular across indoor and outdoor stadiums across the U.S. AstroTurf was much cheaper and easier to maintain, although it was a subpar playing surface.
“[AstroTurf] was basically like this hard carpet almost sitting on cement,” Baltimore Ravens team physician Dr. Rich Levine said in an interview.
AstroTurf was a revolutionary concept, but it was a severely flawed surface that has relied on several modifications over recent decades.
“We are in third-generation turf fields, there are different sized fibers of synthetic grass, and it's filled with sand and rubber pellets on top of a foam that sits on a cement base,” Levine said.
From 2000-2009, there were 2,680 NFL games, with 1,528 knee sprains and 1,503 ankle sprains across those games.
In a National Library of Medicine study, Dr. Elliot Hershman examined the rates of knee and ankle sprain injuries on FieldTurf and natural grass surfaces. His study revealed a 67% increase in ACL sprains on FieldTurf surfaces in comparison to natural grass surfaces, in addition to a 31% increase in eversion ankle sprains.
With these studies providing conclusive evidence that turf surfaces are detrimental to players' health, NFL players and the NFLPA are advocating for all artificial turf fields to be converted to natural grass surfaces.
NFLPA President and former Cleveland Browns offensive linemen J.C. Tretter has been at the forefront of the players’ movement.
“The data supports the anecdotes you’ll hear from me and other players: artificial turf is significantly harder on the body than grass. Based on NFL injury data collected from 2012 to 2018, not only was the contact injury rate for lower extremities higher during practices and games held on artificial turf, NFL players consistently experienced a much higher rate of non-contact lower extremity injuries on turf compared to natural surfaces,” Tretter said WHEN?
“Specifically, players have a 28% higher rate of non-contact lower extremity injuries when playing on artificial turf. Of those non-contact injuries, players have a 32% higher rate of non-contact knee injuries on turf and a staggering 69% higher rate of non-contact foot/ankle injuries on turf compared to grass.”
At all levels, football players are at a disadvantage when playing on artificial turf. Across practice and games, it creates a wear-and-tear on players bodies and puts them at risk of significant lower-body ligament damage.
For high schools and college fields, it is simply impractical to convert back to natural grass fields. Grass fields require maintenance, proper drainage systems, and rest to grow substantially. With high school and college fields being multi-purposed and in communities without substantial funding, artificial turf fields are the best option regardless of their impact on players' health.
However, at the NFL level, these stadiums are multi-billion dollar facilities, owned by some of the wealthiest families and individuals in the world. Their top priority is winning a championship, and they have the resources and responsibility of providing the safest field surface that puts the team's players in a position to succeed.
NFL teams play between 8-10 home games per year and practice in their facilities once a day for five months of the year, ensuring that grass fields would have a proper rest period, in addition to their world-class team officials that could sustain proper maintenance.
There is no logical reason for artificial turf fields to still exist in the NFL. With modern technology and an abundance of resources, owners are now out of excuses. If player health and safety is truly the top priority, then it is time for the NFL to put an end to these detrimental playing surfaces.
David Sewall is a recent graduate of Annandale High School in Annandale, Va.