In many football fields throughout the world, particularly professional fields, field turf has been used to replace the natural soil grown grass that used to be common everywhere. Since it first came into use during the 1960’s, field turf has been a common choice in settings where constant heavy use has made maintenance of natural grass too much of an effort to bother with. Field turf is also popular (and the only practical option) in covered or partially covered professional fields where there isn’t enough sunlight available to let natural grass grow thickly enough, or where the constant watering that natural turf needs would be too expensive
However, aside from its obvious maintenance benefits, another important question is how safe field turf is for the athletes who have to use it during some of the roughest moments of a football or soccer game. The biggest safety question relates to concussion safety, since this can be one of the main causes of lasting injuries or even fatalities during a sports match. So, is field turf safer than natural grass, or vice versa?
Head injuries aside, one of the most common issues with field turf has been its resistance to letting a fast moving player slip and slide along if he or she falls during a game. While this may seem like a good thing at first glance, surveys conducted by the National Football League Players Association in 1996 and other years found that as many as 83% of players disliked playing on artificial turf exactly because they thought it caused them to suffer more injuries than with grass. Players complained of friction burn caused by the turfs resistance to sliding and of even worse problems caused by what they call “foot-lock”, when the joints lock up and get hurt because the field stops the legs from sliding with a hard uncontrolled motion.
If these complaints can be considered as valid, then there is a good argument for field turf being more dangerous for concussive head injuries, since less sliding freedom leads to more bumpy rolling and the possibility of a player banging their had hard enough to suffer a concussion.
The complaints of not enough slipperiness were considered serious enough to prompt industry efforts at developing a new type of artificial grass that feels and acts much more like natural turf. One recent replacement for the original and more slide resistant Astroturf has been a new brand called FieldTurf.
However, laying a few criticisms down against natural grass fields, the fact that they’re grown over soil can lead to some tricky and dangerous problems as well. During rain or heavy moisture, large patches of the field can become muddy, form small sinkholes and in turn cause players to suddenly fall hard enough to cause traumatic head injuries. Furthermore, when natural grass dries out again during rainless periods, hard spots in the former muddy areas can lead to some serious cranial injuries if a player hits them with his head. Artificial turf doesn’t suffer this problem since its surface is uniformly soft-padded and mud free.
In conclusion, it seems that while older brands of field turf were indeed more disliked and even dangerous to players’ cranial safety, newer developments in artificial turf have dramatically lowered safety concerns by making the grass softer and much less resistive to sliding movement. Some of these developments are backed by industry studies, several of which have indicated that the latest modern artificial turf surfaces actually reduce cranial injuries slightly. One study in particular, conducted by the Human Performance Research Center at West Texas A&M University showed that modern turfs can reduce cranial and cervical injuries by as much as 47%.
The debate still rages over whether natural grass of field turf is safer for players’ heads, but it does seem that the tide is turning slightly in favor of technology instead of nature.
About the author: When Earl Reidlen isn’t covering football field safety equipment, he’s busy spending time with his family and working on his sailboat that he’s building from scratch.