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Artificial Turf: A Dangerous Playing Surface Some of the changes that have occurred in professional football were necessary for the game. Pads, helmets and other protective equipment helped the players safety. Other developments though, especially artificial turf, have proven themselves detrimental to the game and its participants. Just as changes were made earlier, they must be made again. Stadiums need to convert back to grass playing fields for the safety of football players, the satisfaction of the fans, and most importantly to improve the sport overall.
What Is Artificial Turf? Like Kleenex or Xerox, AstroTurf has become the popular moniker for all artificial playing surfaces impersonating natural grass in the modern sports world. Born in the 1960’s out of a military project to improve the physical fitness of urban teenagers, AstroTurf,along with its foreign and domestic impostors that were eventually squeezed out of the industry,was developed as a cheaper, more durable, low maintenance alternative to grass as a playing surface for football, baseball, and soccer.
The original sales pitch rang true with all the sincerity of a beer commercial: All the fun of the regular grass, with only a third of the maintenance. Monsanto, AstroTurf’s original manufacturer, had an ace in hole as well; grass doesn’t grow very well in domes. Seduced by visions of conquering Mother Nature and paying a couple kids minimum wage to run a vacuum cleaner over the field between games, stadium executives across the nation bought into the AstroTurf movement.
However, as the powers that be soon discovered for themselves, AstroTurf proved to be neither cheaper nor lower maintenance than grass, and it had a nasty little side effect. Players, coaches, and trainers began to notice a substantial increase in the frequency of injuries on the improved traction and reduced cushion of AstroTurf. Doctors even identified and named a few new ones, common only to the artificial surface. Turf Injuries The relative hardness of AstroTurf has spawned an unpleasant little chronic injury called turf toe. It occurs when the big toe is crushed into an artificial surface, ramming the toe back up into the foot and ripping up any ligaments and tissue it might encounter along the way. A little less serious but somewhat more messy ailment turf burn, which like turf toe, simply would not exist without Astroturf. Turf burn occurs just about anytime exposed skin comes in contact with the artificial surface, which in a contact sport like football, is about every thirty seconds. Because AstroTurf has about the same texture as a toothbrush and it can sizzle at about 30 degrees higher than the air temperature on a hot day, it rips off flesh with the efficiency of sandpaper. And aside from the nagging pain and constant threat of infections, turf burn offers the added bonus of making you stick to your sheets every night as you sleep. These, however, are but minor ailments. The notion that an increase in major injuries, particularly to the anterior cruciate ligament in the knee is a direct result of AstroTurf has been a more hotly debated issue. In 1974, the Stanford Research Institute International (SRI) completed a six year study commissioned by the National Football League on the health effects of artificial turf. SRI reported that “in 17 out of 17 categories, natural grass was safer to play on than artificial surfaces.” Joe Grippo, the director of SRI, later admitted that “synthetic surfaces could not be justified, not on an injury prevention basis, not on a relative cost basis.” Those facts, however, did not stop the NFL Players Association from conducting its own injury studies. The NFLPA concluded for the 1984 season that “the average turf injury took longer to heal, that the number of players increased by a third and that the number of missed games doubled when the injuries occurred on turf.” More recently, an ESPN poll conducted in September 1995 likewise found that 98 percent of NFL players believe playing on AstroTurf will shorten their careers. The NFLPA’s reasoning for the increase in injuries echoed what common sense and trainers across the League had been saying for years. AstroTurf, because of its augmented traction, split seems, and permanent high and low spots (known as “birdbaths”), sometimes causes a player’s feet to stick to the ground. “The resulting torque places enormous pressure on joints like the knee and the ankle, resulting in a greater number of torn tendons and ligaments.” Football Players’ Preferences The results of a January 1997 study by the NFL Players Association showed that nine out of 10 NFL players believe playing on artificial turf is more likely than grass to cause the kind of serious injuries that shorten careers. The written survey was conducted by NFLPA staff members at team meetings during the1996 NFL season, as a follow-up to a similar survey conducted during the 1994 NFL season. The 1996 survey revealed that 86.7% of the 1034 players who answered preferred to play on natural grass (up from 85.1% in 1994), while only 6.3% preferred artificial turf (down from 7% in 1994) and 7% had no preference (8% in 1994). Almost three-quarters (74%) of NFL players in this survey also indicated that playing on a natural grass surface was either very important or somewhat important in selecting the teams they would consider signing with as free agents (up from 70% in 1994). NFLPA Executive Director Gene Upshaw stated: “This survey underscores the overwhelming and increasing preference of NFL players for top-quality natural grass playing surfaces. Given the need of every NFL club to recruit free agents to remain competitive, we expect that many NFL clubs will recognize the obvious advantage they will gain by converting to or upgrading to a first-class natural grass playing field.” When asked to rate the five best playing fields the players chose the following: Ranking Stadium Field Surface 1 Tampa Stadium Natural Grass 2 Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami Natural Grass 3 Jacksonville Stadium Natural Grass 4 Sun Devil Stadium in Arizona Natural Grass 5 Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City Natural Grass Players rated the worst stadiums as follows: Ranking Stadium Field Surface 1 Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia Artificial Turf 2 Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati Artificial Turf 3 The Astrodome in Houston Artificial Turf 4 Three Rivers Stadiumin Pittsburgh Artificial Turf 5 Giants Stadium in New Jersey Artificial Turf Other results of the survey: 93.4% of NFL players believe that artificial turf is more likely than grass to contribute to injury. 90.9% believe artificial turf is more likely to shorten their careers. 83.9% believe artificial turf is more likely to worsen their quality of life after football. 94.8% believe artificial turf causes more soreness. 58.9% believe artificial turf causes more fatigue. 52.5% identified an artificial turf injury they suffered that they believe would not have happened on grass. Medical Evidence Linking Turf and Injury Examining 25 scientific journals, Dr. Willibald Nagler, the Anne and Jerome Fisher Physiatrist in Chief at the Cornell Medical Center in New York City, and his colleagues found that foot and knee injuries on synthetic turf in some cases occur about 50 percent more than on grass. And when injuries do occur, they often are more serious and difficult to heal than those that occur on grass. Nagler explained that synthetic turf does not allow the foot to slide when it hits the ground, and ligaments in the feet and knees rupture injuries that can be “debilitating and painful for an athlete, and difficult to heal and to treat.” Ligaments whose sole function is to keep the joint in place are not elastic, Nagler emphasized, and they rupture either partially or completely. “It takes quite a long time to heal if they are even partially ruptured,” said Nagler, a specialist in rehabilitation medicine. “The ligament actually comes apart, and it loses its functional value. It doesn’t hold the joint together anymore.” Treatment is to immobilize the joint in a plaster cast or surgically suture the ligament back together. That is difficult because the surgeon has to take ligament from someplace else, and the procedure is not always successful. Football on grass results in fewer ligamentous injuries, Nagler said, and those that do occur are not as severe, according to the published scientific articles. Furthermore, synthetic turf may exacerbate existing injuries, or make healing take longer, the studies show. Nagler and Dr. Debra Braverman of the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine examined more than two dozen scientific journals to compare ligamentous football injuries. Among them: Journal of Sports Medicine, Clinical Orthopedics, the Journal of the American Medical Association, and others. He was motivated, he said, “because there is a lot of anecdotal evidence, but no one’s really searched the literature to see if it’s true. There is definitely an increase in ligamentous injuries on artificial turf.” Financial Downfalls of Astroturf Fields AstroTurf has generally failed to prove itself any less expesive than grass. The Monsanto company’s claim, just before it sold its AstroTurf division to Balsam, was that grass would cost $40,000 annually to keep in shape compared to only $4,000 for AstroTurf. However as noted by Alex Hill of Colorado University, natural grass is still cheaper to install, and in a football exclusive stadium the total cost over a ten year period is about even for turf and grass at just over a million dollars. Moreover, those statistics don’t even account for the single greatest fear of many: the possibility that a star with a guaranteed multimillion dollar contract will trip on a seam in the turf, rip apart his knee, and spend the rest of his career in rehab programs. It is a cost that is measured in missing Super Bowl rings as easily as it is in dollars and cents, not in groundskeeping costs. The Solution An ESPNET poll revealed that of 4650 fans surveyed 97 percent preferred watching games played on natural grass. Players in the NFL prefer natural grass, and their protection is most important. They are after all your investment in financial and athletic success as are the fans. Having grass fields installed in your stadium will also attract free agents as well. Astroturf’s time is up, it’s time for a switch back to grass. The investment in a natural grass playing surface will ease the minds of players, fans and coaches alike and let them concentrate on the more important aspects of football
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