Aljancic’s pros and cons of artificial turf
Some exciting “novelties” from my university sports days are now commonplace.
Until my junior year (1987), I was only playing with a 3-point line when I scribbled this magical arc in chalk on my driveway. In my teenage baseball days, I rarely played in a field with a home run fence, and even some high school diamonds were still wide-open prairies (Massillon, McKinley, and Minerva quickly come to mind). Unfortunately, those limitless outer fields – and my slow feet – have reduced many potential home races to doubles.
The most noticeable change was in football. I only played one artificial turf game in the Akron Rubber Bowl in high school. Conversely, many of today’s high school players go their entire careers without ever having a weed stain on their pants. While three-dot lines and home run fences improved their sport for the most part, I can’t say the same thing about fake soccer grass. Friday night football is much more sterile to watch and probably less safe for athletes.
The safety issue was recently addressed in a newsletter from the President of the NFL Players’ Association, JC Tretter. The Browns offensive guard asked his league to switch all fields back to grass to avoid injuries. In particular, he wrote, “Based on NFL injury data collected from 2012 to 2018… players have a 28% higher rate of non-contact lower extremity injuries when playing on artificial turf. Of these 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. “Those numbers were confirmed during this injury-ridden 2020 NFL season.
According to a 2015 news report from the Concussion Legacy Foundation, “In a helmet drop test study comparing artificial turf fields … and natural grass in an elite college sports program, art systems performed comparable to natural grass, despite natural grass constantly weakened (reduced)) has more of an impact than artificial turf. “
The hardness and lack of “give” have always been faults in artificial turf. Thankfully, fake fields have improved a lot since the ‘Astro Turf’ days of the 1970s and 80s (which mimicked your grandfather’s porch) and the sandy lawn days that followed. The fields were tough and the dreaded carpet burns were common. Today’s lawn, which is filled with longer blades and built-in rubber pellets, is much softer and safer. However, those two studies I was referring to show that weed still improves player health significantly.
Due to rules, equipment, and medical changes, today’s game should be safer than ever. However, I personally believe that improving player safety is hampered by something I learned in physics and driver training as a teenager. To paraphrase Sir Isaac Newton, “Faster collisions cause more damage.” Players move faster than previous generations. If you don’t believe me, check out yesterday’s “classic” game on the internet or toss your old high school game on the VCR.
The player movement has evolved from trampling pick-ups to fast sports cars. There are mutliple reasons for this. First, modern health and training have improved the speed of players somewhat. Second, players have less equipment to weigh them down. In my day, the thigh pads were often thicker than a T-bone steak, and you could put a pterodactyl on the shoulder pads. Jerseys and pants were bulky. Everything is slim, tight and slim these days, and leg pads are almost non-existent. Third, the mainstream proliferation crime outbreak has put more players into space, and thus moving at faster speeds. Yesterday’s steady diet of off-tackle rugby scrums is no longer on most teams’ menus.
Most significantly, the proliferation of artificial turf has increased the speed of the game. Even the shortest and best-manicured lawns are slower than the wrong stuff. Until mid-season, grass fields are usually beaten up, which slows players down even more. On today’s artificial turf, almost every foot plant is smooth and safe. From late summer to early winter, players never have to take slower, more choppy steps – a common step for us classic cars – to avoid obliteration.
There is a lot that is good about artificial turf for high schools. It offers a uniform surface for games and especially for exercises throughout the season. That makes bad weather a much smaller adversary for a crime to work out. Fake fields also offer more exercise and leeway. A meadow can only be used so often that it does not become a dirt road. Artificial turf can host a variety of daily exercises and games throughout the year, including tape, soccer, lacrosse, and baseball and softball in the spring.
While I’ve been able to see a great deal how the NFL eliminated artificial turf, it’s likely that it will stay here at the high school and college levels. I think future man-made fields should have longer and deeper leaves (think push shag carpet) to better mimic the lower speed limits of grass fields. Additionally, I think football should increase its leg pad requirements to better protect and slow players down. In 2017, the NCAA rules committee announced that uncovered knees would be considered illegal equipment and forced any guilty player out of the game until this issue was resolved. This infraction was enforced about as much as jaywalking.
If your high school still has a meadow, be in no hurry to trade it in. That makes football a more fun and beautiful game. Just have a bottle of grass stain remover handy.