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The Grass is (not) Always Greener: Injuries Spark Debate over Artificial Turf

Man-made turf on athletic fields is raising concerns throughout the world of sports. The issue touched down for NFL players and fans when Quarterback Aaron Rodgers suffered an Achilles injury in his first game with the New York Jets last month.

Cameron Priester | MediaLab@FAU

Oct 23, 2023

It was just his third play of his season on Sept. 11 at MetLife Stadium. 

Quarterback Aaron Rodgers caught the snap, dropped back, and seeing nothing downfield and a defender barreling down to his left, he attempted to flee the pocket but was swallowed up by defensive end Leonard Floyd and thrown to the turf. 

As he was getting tackled, Rodgers' cleat got caught in the turf and a visible snap ran up his calf. His achilles tendon was torn, his season over.

In addition to the outcry in the streets of New York as Jets’ fans watched what was supposed to be a season of rebirth for the 39-year-old quarterback fizzle away in three plays, Rodgers’ injury reignited the ongoing debate surrounding the use of artificial turf on sports fields. 

“Congrats [NFL]. How many more players have to get hurt on artificial turf?” said Green Bay Packers’ offensive lineman David Bakhtiari after watching his former teammate’s injury via X. 

“It sucks. No one enjoys playing on it, everyone is too scared to talk about it,” Bakhtiari later added on “The Rich Eisen Show” on YouTube.

Doctors argue that artificial turf is significantly rougher on athletes’ bodies than natural grass and increases the risk of injury, specifically ligament tears like Rodgers’ and concussions. In addition, artificial turf has been found to contain what many scientists describe as dangerous “forever” chemicals, which have been linked to a rare form of brain cancer. 

With all this information on hand, why do 17 NFL teams, and countless more college and high school teams across several sports, employ turf on their home field? Many say the answer is simple: money. 

“It’s a money decision, almost always,” said Dr. Jesse Morse, sports medicine physician from Miami, Florida. 

Traditionally, most outdoor sports were played on natural grass fields. This changed in the 1970’s, when the Astrodome—the first fully enclosed sports stadium—in Houston, Texas popularized artificial turf as a cheaper, lower maintenance alternative to grass.

Though there are several variants available today, most boil down to synthetic grass fibers laid over a midlayer of rubber pellets—oftentimes ground up tires—all sitting on top of a solid concrete bed. 

“The problem obviously is that concrete is not forgiving at all,” said Morse. “It's very impactful, it’s very tough on the joints. If you land on it, or fall and hit your head on it, you’re probably going to be at a higher risk of concussion because there’s no give.” 

The impact experienced on an artificial playing surface, according to Morse, is comparable to the impact felt on a frozen solid grass field. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics suggest that synthetic playing fields cause an increased risk of concussions, but the injury risk it poses to lower extremities is where it catches the most criticism from athletes.

Natural grass allows the ability to have a divot created when a leg is planted. Artificial surfaces, on the other hand, tend to hold firm, and that force that would’ve been released on grass can cause major injuries, as did in Rodgers’ case.

But while athletes across the sports world continue to express disgust at artificial playing surfaces because of these injury risks, the most dangerous effect may be going largely unnoticed. 

“All artificial turf, as far as we know, contain per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances,” said Kyra Bennett, chief scientist at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a Silver Spring, Maryland-based organization dedicated to protecting employees who speak out about issues concerning environmental protection.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAs, are chemicals that have properties that resist heat, grease and water commonly found in cleaning products and paint varnish. According to Bennett, some of these PFAs are known to cause cancer. 

In September 2022, the city of Boston became the latest and largest municipality to ban the use of artificial turf in public parks, pointing specifically to the presence of PFAs. Following the death of six former Philadelphia Phillies to the same form of brain cancer, The Philadelphia Inquirer launched an investigation into the turf at Veterans’ Stadium that found 16 different types of PFAs. 

Many other cities have begun to follow suit: Los Angeles has already introduced policies regulating the use of artificial turf. Yet the NFL and other professionals have ignored the several calls to eliminate its use—three of the four newest NFL stadiums are played on artificial surfaces.

The problem is that artificial turf saves money and is less of a hassle, experts explain. 

An advantage of synthetic turf is that there is little thought on when and how much a field is used. These fields can handle a lot of traffic with little thought to the scheduling,” said Adam Thoms, Associate Professor of Commercial Turfgrass Management at Iowa State University.

For natural grass to be played on, it must be planted, grown, watered, cut, and painted—a tedious, expensive process that, essentially, has to be repeated every time it's played on. 

Artificial turf, on the other hand, can be played on be repeatedly with little to no maintenance required. This makes it attractive to stadiums like MetLife that are home to multiple NFL teams and sometimes host games on consecutive days. 

However, Bennett argued that the idea of artificial turf being cheaper, safer, or easier to natural grass is a farce. 

“This industry, it’s the same playbook as the tobacco industry,” said Bennett. “They’ve convinced people that it’s safer, more environmentally responsible, more fiscally responsible. It’s none of that.” 

A 2016 study done by the Toxic Use Reduction Institute found that, “the full life-cycle cost of natural turf is lower than the life-cycle cost of a synthetic turf field for an equivalent area.” The Associated Press later reported that it would cost the NFL an estimated $11.9 million, or $850,000 for every turf field in use, to be converted to grass. That’s a steep price tag, except when compared to the $765 million settlement the NFL paid to retired players in 2013 over concussion-related brain injuries, in which turf fields may also have played a significant role.

“No matter what surface, they both need to be maintained,” said Thoms. “To put a field in and have an administrator say they will save money on maintenance is neglecting the athlete's safety and field longevity.”

Since Rodgers’ injury, NFL Players Association executive director Lloyd Howell issued a statement calling for the end of the use of artificial turf to no response from the league. 

However, several states have introduced legislation that would ban the use of artificial turf in public spaces. A bill banning the manufacturing and sale of turf that contains PFAs was passed by the California state legislature in September. A similar bill banning the installation of all artificial turf is being heard in the Massachusetts state legislature. 

Although in Florida there has been no state legislative efforts to match these, several communities are struggling with the controversy over artificial turf installations. Moreover, college football may be in for a reckoning: A recent AP investigation found that 71% of the 133 schools that compete in the top-tier NCAA Division 1 have artificial football fields.

But in many stadiums, both professional and amateur, and in public spaces across the country, the problem continues to go unaddressed, critics say.

“These snake oil salesmen are coming in and telling people that their children can be the next Tom Brady if only they have artificial turf,” said Bennett, the scientist at PEER. “But there’s really nothing redeeming, it’s just been all smoke and mirrors and the industry trying to convince people that they need this stuff even though it's toxic, dangerous, and fiscally irresponsible.”

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