The NFL’s Turf Troubles

The NFL is facing a serious problem. Ok, ANOTHER serious problem. The Packers announced early Tuesday that tackle Brian Bulaga will miss the remainder of the season with a torn ACL, making Bulaga the 34th player to be shut down with a torn ACL this season (according to CBSSports.com). It’s no secret that this year has seemingly seen a rise in injuries, especially among star players. While injuries are the price of doing business in the NFL, there are steps the league can take to lessen those risks, and one in particular could help cut the rate of ACL tears that have taken the likes of Dalvin Cook, Deshaun Watson, and others out of the game. It is time for the NFL to do away with one of the biggest “innovations” in sports in the last century, artificial turf.

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Artificial surfaces have been in use in the NFL since the 1960’s, when Houston’s Astrodome introduced the league to Astroturf. Since then, turf has advanced and has become the primary surface of multiple sports, from amateur to professional. Turf has a few distinct advantages. First off, it allows for indoor fields without requiring crazy amounts of maintenance that grass would need to grow inside. It can be used in all seasons; snow and rain are easy to remove. Most of all though, it is cheaper in the long term than grass. The initial install is more expensive, but artificial turf has much lower maintenance requirements than a grass field that has to be watered, groomed, re-seeded, etc. It was these reasons turf took off in so many sports, including football.

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So turf is great. What’s my issue, and how does this relate to injuries? Turf has a lot of positives, but it has a major systemic flaw in its design. Unlike natural grass, which is rooted in the ground, turf needs a base surface to be installed, giving it less give. If someone plants their foot in grass to make a cut and misses, they’ll end up pulling up a big divot, with minor risk of injury. With turf, that give is not there, which means the stress from the cut goes to the leg of the runner, specifically to the knee. At lower levels, where players are not as strong or fast, this is a near non-issue. The money saved from using an artificial surface is worth the risk. When it comes to the NFL, the speed and strength of players has passed the threshold that even the most state of the art turf can handle.

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Don’t think the players don’t realize it either. A 2010 NFLPA survey on playing surfaces found 69.4% of NFL players prefer to play on grass, while 89.1% say turf causes more ‘soreness and fatigue’ than its natural counterpart. The real damning number though? 82.4% of NFL players think artificial turf is more likely to contribute to an injury than a natural grass surface. Think this is just diva players overthinking a nothing issue? Think again. Like I mentioned earlier, there have been 34 ACL tears thus far in 2017. Of those 34, 18 occurred on an artificial surface, of which there are only 13 in the NFL (counting MetLife Stadium twice, once for each home team that plays there). That means 53% of the NFL’s ACL tears this year occurred on a surface that covers just 41% of home stadiums in the league. If that seems disproportionate, it’s because it is. Perhaps even disproportionate enough to make it a sticking point at the league’s next CBA negotiations.

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Yes, turf is the cheaper option, and we all know the NFL only cares about the bottom line, but at what point is enough enough? It made sense to use turf back when the NFL didn’t have the endless checkbook it does now, and teams were playing in cookie-cutter indoor stadiums like the Metrodome, Silverdome, Astrodome, etc. That was the 1970s. We’ve come a long way. So what are the NFL’s options? For starters, most indoor stadiums are now built with glass sides and or retractable roofs, so growing grass inside is a possibility. You even have the stadium in Arizona that grows its grass outside then rolls it into place on Sundays. The maintenance costs would be high, but the NFL could afford to cover the entire US in a layer of grass and barely see a dent in their yearly profit at this point. Heck, they might even not have to pay. I’m sure they could work out a deal with a lawn care company such as Scotts, where they would do all the work, and we would hear 10-15 times a game about how ‘today’s field is brought to you by Scotts!’.

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As a football traditionalist, I’d love to see grass fields come back for a number of reasons, but player safety is the only reason the NFL should need to mandate natural surfaces for their stadiums. Players continue to get bigger, faster, and stronger, but the artificial turf technology just cannot keep up. Until the technology can not only create a cheaper, better looking playing surface, but a safer one as well, there should be nothing but good old natural grass on NFL Sundays. Agree? Disagree? Did I miss something? Let me know on Twitter @RealAlexBarth.

Written By: Alex Barth (@RealAlexBarth) with contributions from Jesse Feldman (@jsfeldman2)

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