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Profits vs. safety: What new findings about FieldTurf tell us about the future of sports

A new series of articles shows how the synthetic playing surface is more dangerous than first realized.

This has been something of a banner year for local reporting, especially in the state of New Jersey, where local reporting largely has been responsible for leaving Governor Chris Christie’s political career—and a pretty good –sized hunk of his essential dignity—hanging in midair over the Hudson River. This month, NJ Advance Media released the results of its six-month investigation of a company called FieldTurf which, between 2006 and '12, peddled artificial playing surfaces made of something called DuraSpine to school districts and parks commissions. These things cost somewhere between $300,000 and $500,000 apiece, and a great deal of the money came from the taxpayers of various municipalities. And the fields themselves wound up having the basic durability of mashed potatoes. Further, the investigation revealed that the company knew they were selling a defective product and kept, well, selling it.

The long history of trying to save a buck by reinventing one of God’s two natural playing surfaces always has been an arm-wrestling match between profits and safety. (By the way, in toting up God’s natural playing surfaces, I’m counting water and ice as one entry because my 11th grade physics teachers explained that they are.)  The first artificial turf was laid down 52 years ago in an recreational area at the Moses Brown School in Providence, R.I. Two years later, in Houston, the Eighth Wonder Of The World slapped a bunch of it down and gave plastic grass a generic name: AstroTurf. This set off a boom in synthetic grass that lasted well into the next decade. It brought upon the sports world an entirely new set of new concerns. For example, it inflicted upon Major League Baseball the great trifecta of atrocities that were Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, and Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati, as well as the twin Missourian catastrophes of Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City and Busch Stadium in St. Louis. In all of these places, the ball moved more quickly and more predictably than it did on what soon became known as “natural” grass.

There were other features as well. First of all, the new stuff was laid on a concrete base and players soon realized that it felt like someone was driving railroad spikes through their shins and ankles. Also, and this was a particular delight in August in St. Louis, the field became so hot that metal spikes burned players' feet and their plastic spikes melted. It was only the hand of Providence that kept one of the Budweiser Clydesdales from melting into a puddle one day during the seventh inning stretch.

And that was just baseball.

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Football players had all of those problems plus the fact that their jobs required that they periodically be slammed down onto this surface, or jump on it, or get caught at the bottom of a pile of other football players. In addition, there cropped up an entirely new injury called metatarsophalangeal joint sprain, or Turf Toe, that one day will be categorized with the famous ice-hockey “gunk” in some future atlas of ancient sports-specific health concerns.

And that’s not even talking about, ah, cancer.

One of the ingredients in modern artificial turf was what was called “crumb rubber,” the ground-up remains of recycled tires, a suspected carcinogen. There is substantial anecdotal evidence that playing sports on this particular type of artificial surface makes you vulnerable to various kinds of cancer; it is often noted that four members of the Philadelphia Phillies who played at Veterans Stadium all developed brain cancer and died. There’s currently an ongoing investigation of the link between artificial turf and cancer being conducted by the EPA, the Centers for Disease Control and the Consumer Product Safety Commission.


So let us say with considerable confidence that artificial turf has not been an unmitigated success. In fact, let’s say that it’s benefits are mitigated into shreds and shrapnel. This is pretty much what’s happening to all those playing field that were outfitted by that company in New Jersey, as the series points out in fairly disgusting detail:

Now in its eighth year, the surface at Highland Park may still be green, but it behaves like a grass field choked by an August drought. The fibers have cracked, split, frayed and become matted across a thinning playing field. Those were the conditions of hundreds of fields across the country that FieldTurf, the self-proclaimed leader in artificial turf, has deemed defective. According to company officials, the turf—known as Duraspine—was not made properly by their supplier to withstand UV radiation. That caused the grass fibers to prematurely deteriorate, sometimes in as little as two to three years.

In other words, it seems as though the overall problem with Duraspine fields is that, inevitably, it devolves back to the original, matted, and cementlike consistency that once was characteristic of all artificial turf back in the day. Not only that but, as these fields wear themselves out, more and more of the rubber “infill”—produced god-knows-where from god-knows-what—comes to the surface until it looks like your football team is playing on a bathmat that’s been left out in the yard all winter.

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(And, not for nothing, but the inability of a product to handle ultraviolet radiation should be a deal-breaker regarding any product produced on Planet Earth, up to and including new human beings.)

The series goes on to detail the pending national tsunami of lawsuits against the company that produced FieldTurf so it is very likely that this particular story will go on for a while. But, as we said earlier, this is fundamentally yet another chapter in the ongoing struggle between corporate profits and public safety—or, in the case of our sports-entertainment industrial complex, the struggle between corporate profits and the safety of the people who play the games. In a related story this week, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the settlement reached by the National Football League with hundreds of its former players could proceed to implementation, declining to hear a case brought by a number of dissenters who pointed out that the settlement, which specifically does not cover chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), not only would leave some players out in the cold, but that it also would short-circuit the discovery process in independent lawsuits, thereby shutting down fruitful avenues of inquiry as to what the NFL knew and when did it know it. CTE, of course, was the condition that, once diagnosed, brought the wrath of the medical and legal community down on the league.

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The NFL’s stonewalling on this issue continued for decades. It was the single bloodiest skirmish in the battle between profits and safety that we’d seen since the government took on the tobacco industry, and it was far more visible from the start. But the combat filters all the way down from the pleasure palaces of the league to the playing fields of New Jersey.

In fact, if American football ever does come apart, it’s not going to be because America’s millions of gamblers suddenly develop social consciences all at once and refuse to bet on the destruction of human beings. It’s going to be because local school boards decide that, between the upkeep and the insurance, they can’t afford the game any more. This is not likely to happen very soon, given how deeply the sport is ingrained in the country at the local level. (For example, Texas high-schools currently are engaged in a preposterous exercise in overcompensation regarding the size of their football stadia.) Sooner or later, short-changing longterm safety for short-term profit becomes indefensible, or one hopes it would, anyway. And don’t make the mistake of believing that incredibly wealthy people can’t pinch a penny until Lincoln gets a nosebleed. There’s a story from Dickens, highly popular around this time of year, that pretty much proves that the opposite is the case. I have a feeling that, on Christmas Eve,  Roger Goodell and the executives of FieldTurf are going to be visited by the same three spirits, all of them carrying briefcases bulging with personal-injury complaints and discovery motions. It’s a Christmas miracle, y’all.