Football is a contact sport, and at all levels there is an inherent risk of injury. At the professional level, although the players take care of their bodies, the speed of the game and force of contact are significant. In the tackle zone, anything can happen. When a player gets injured as a product of getting hit, it is accepted as part of the game. Some non-contact injuries are accepted as well. What is not accepted by the players, however, are injuries related to playing on turf. Well, another week has passed in the NFL season, and another player has lost the rest of his season due to an avoidable injury.
Packers’ outside linebacker Rashan Gary suffered a torn ACL on what looked like an innocent play. He wasn’t touched at all, he simply tried to make a change of direction by planting his foot in the turf at Ford Field, and that’s all it took. He is now sidelined for the rest of the season which is a poor turn in anyone’s book, but especially Gary who leads his team in sacks, and is Pro Football Focus’s 5th rated edge rusher in pass-rushing productivity this season.
In response to Gary’s injury, teammate De’Vondre Campbell took to twitter to criticize the league for still employing the use of turf fields:
This issue is hotly contested; the players and players’ association are adamant that turf causes more lower-extremity injuries than natural grass does. The league, however, thinks otherwise and has doubled down on their argument as recently as October of this year.
NFL Executive Vice President of Health & Safety Initiatives Jeff Miller stated, “the lower extremity injury rates between natural grass and synthetic surfaces over the past few years has decreased to the point where it’s almost nonexistent right now,” yet that data was not provided when requested. Here’s what some of the data shows: a 2019 study on NFL injuries between 2012-2016 found a 27% increase in lower-body non-contact injuries from playing on turf as opposed to grass (this study can be found here). A 2018 study (commissioned by the NFL) published in the American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine reported a 16% increase.
The team’s owners’ position is that turf is much less costly to maintain and more durable than grass, making it easier to host more events at the stadiums, leading to more revenue. They’re basically saying they will not pay to maintain natural grass fields at stadiums. Due to the league’s alignment with the owners on this issue, they have not put any pressure on owners to make a change. As it turns out, the league is investing a lot into resolving this issue the way they want to. The NFL has been funding research on the safest cleat patterns, rigidity of the artificial surface, how deep the artificial grass should be filled in with the rubber pellets. They even employed two biomechanical engineers, who are automobile safety experts, in an attempt to study and better understand what causes lower-body injuries and how to mitigate them.
New technology has made it easier to maintain grass fields in a plethora of ways. At the very least, a field can be resodded in as little as two days, although that solution is costly. Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin is known for its cold weather games. That field uses an underground heating system to maintain its soil temperature and ground hardness through the frozen winters it endures. State Farm Stadium, home to the Arizona Cardinals, has a full grass field that rolls in and out of the stadium. More and more solutions are being hypothesized and practiced, but of course a perfect solution is yet to be discovered.
The NFLPA has held their position of demanding grass fields for years now. Current president and former player JC Tretter wrote a newsletter shedding light on his and other players experiences on synthetic turf. He highlights the data collection, how he and his teammates felt physically after practicing or playing on turf, and the noticeable difference in feeling when swapping between natural and artificial playing surfaces. While the ultimate goal is a playing surface pairing physical elements that the players are looking for with financial/durable characteristics that owners are looking for, Tretter concedes that such an objective may be far-fetched. In the meantime, in the interest of player safety which should be paramount to all parties involved, he demands that all clubs move to natural grass fields. The players association undoubtedly supports any efforts to make artificial turf safer to play on, but the reality is that grass fields are empirically safer. What is becoming more public, especially in light of the recent tweet from De’Vondre Campbell, is that the NFL and its franchises make more than enough money for every NFL stadium and practice facility to have grass surfaces.