The Great Grass vs. Turf Football Field Debate (Part 1)
There has been a big push lately at all levels of football – including high school, college and professional football– to convert from a traditional grass field to the more modern artificial turf fields. In many high school and college communities an artificial turf field is seen as a sign of prestige for the community. But are these fields really a step in to the modern football era or just a lot of hype?
The Wizard of Oddz has performed research investigating both the safety and environmental side of this debate, as well as a financial review of the choice between artificial turn and grass fields. Below are the Top 5 issues that The Wizard of Oddz breaks down -
1. Turf vs. Grass- Toxicity Concerns
One of the more recent and popular concerns regarding Turf Fields is the toxicity of the rubber bits (crumb rubber) that are used under the actual turf. There have been recent news reports and parental concerns that the off fumes from this rubber carriers a variety of hazardous substances including cancer causing agents. A recent study in Connecticut (Human health risk assessment of synthetic turf fields based upon investigation of five fields in Connecticut), based on the analysis of 4 outdoor turf fields and 1 indoor turf field – compared data from the fields and the surrounding environment, showed that more than 20 chemicals of potential concern were at or above their background baselines. However, based on the amount of time spent at the fields and the inhalation rates of the athletes, these levels are at or below an exposure rate of concern for these chemicals.
Therefore, while parents and others have a right to have legitimate concern of the makeup of these fields, currently available data shows that there is limited risk to the athletes’ at their likely exposure levels.
The Wizard of Oddz calls it a toss-up when it comes to the issue of toxicity, and finds that there is not additional significant toxicity concerns regarding turf vs grass fields based on current research. We’re tied 0-0-1.
2. Turf vs. Grass- Player’s Perception
The opinions of players should be considered when weighing in on the turf vs. grass debate, since they’re the ones playing on it. So, how do players view a turf vs. grass field?
A study from a sports science journal (Artificial turf surfaces: Perception of safety, sporting) studied the perception of soccer players, coaches and referees regarding the quality of turf fields through surveying over 600 individuals. The overall results showed that athletes were fairly dissatisfied by the frequency and likelihood of brush burn, minor muscular injuries and also the potential for sustaining injury on turf fields. However, overall, the surveyed group was happy with the surface in terms of actual game play in areas such as evenness of the field and the consistent state of the playing surface.
The Wizard concludes that while there is concern regarding the safety of turf fields, the perception of improved playing conditions seems to outweigh the safety concerns for most athletes. Turf wins this battle, turf is up 1-0-1.
3. Turf vs. Grass- Potential for Injury
The potential for injury is oftentimes brought up when comparing turf vs. grass fields. How do these fields hold up under further scrutiny?
Building upon the concerns of players, coaches and referees - a study performed for the NFL (An analysis of specific lower extremity injury rates on grass and FieldTurf playing surfaces in National Football League Games: 2000-2009 seasons) reviewed data from the 2000 – 2009 NFL seasons for games played on grass and artificial surfaces and showed that the observed injury rate for sprains of the knee and ankle were 22% higher on artificial turf than they were on grass playing fields and there was also a 67% higher instance of ACL sprains. Both of these results were seen as statistically significant.
In contrast, a study by the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgery (Synthetic playing surfaces and athlete health) found that the health and injury ramifications of turf fields in comparison to grass fields have yet to be fully understood due to the various combinations of shoe-playing surface combinations and their interaction with weather conditions and surface wear. The study did indicate that regardless of injury type, a majority of studies show higher injury rates on artificial turf than natural surfaces and this is backed up by the biomechanical analysis of the strain on artificial turf is greater than that on natural surfaces.
Another consideration that needs to be taken into account when looking at these studies is that, many prior studies have used older generation artificial turf fields as their baselines and at least the manufacturers argue that the newer generation fields have improved their safety considerations for athletes. A Sports Medicine study (A review of football injuries on third and fourth generation artificial turfs compared with natural turf) reviewed 11 prior studies and indicated that there was no significant difference in injury rates of 3rd and 4th generation turf fields compared to grass surfaces except with the case of ankle injuries. However rates of injury were inconsistent from study to study.
Overall, The Wizard of Oddz rules that it is likely that even today there is higher risk of injuries on turf fields compared to grass fields, however, these increased injury rates appear to be focused primarily on the lower extremities, where higher biomechanical forces cause increased risks of injury. The Wizard of Oddz rules in grass’ favor, after three rounds we are now tied, 1-1-1.
4. Turf vs. Grass- Heat Index
Another consideration when looking at turf vs. grass football fields is the physical playing conditions. Research shows that the heat index can also become a factor on turf fields which attract heat, whereas natural fields are natural reducers of heat and can increase the heat index by 30 or more degrees on a hot day on the field.
The Wizard of Oddz concludes that grass fields win this battle, especially when it comes to early season afternoon games in the heat. Even during Friday night games, with players taking the field well before sun-down, heat continues to be a concern. Now we’re at 2-1-1, grass field takes a stronger advantage.
At this stage of the game, grass field has taken the lead at 2-1-1. Continue on to Part 2, where The Wizard of Oddz weighs in on the all-important financial aspects of a turf vs. grass football field.