A Fight Over Turf

Nov. 01, 1993
Nov. 01, 1993

Table of Contents
Nov. 1, 1993

Table of Contents
Motor Sports
Horse Racing
The World Series
NFL Injuries
Felix Potvin
Jim Pyne
On The Scene
Point After
  • Susan Willmot was an owner of Play the King, a 6-year-old gelding who broke down at Pimlico in 1989 and was destroyed by lethal injection. When SI sought Willmot's permission to use photographs of the breakdown for our story on racing injuries, she responded with this letter

A Fight Over Turf

Three recent injuries on AstroTurf have underscored NFL players' calls for a return to grass

Chicago bear wide receiver Wendell Davis looked over his shoulder into the blue sky above Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium on Oct. 10 and saw the football spiraling toward him. Davis, in full gallop, had Eagle cornerback Mark McMillian right with him, and the pass was a bit under-thrown. Davis figured he would have to stop, turn and outjump McMillian for the ball.

This is an article from the Nov. 1, 1993 issue

At the precise moment that Davis planted his feet to jump for the ball, his turf shoes dug into the AstroTurf and held solid, as though they were nailed to the carpet. Davis felt something snap simultaneously in both knees, and he flopped to the artificial turf as if he'd been shot. He began screaming in pain. He tried to move his legs but couldn't. When the trainers and team doctor reached him and straightened both legs, Davis looked down to see why it felt as if someone were stabbing him in both knees with knives.

"I saw the doctor trying to find my kneecaps," Davis said last week from his hospital bed in Chicago. "They found my kneecaps up in my thighs."

The patellar tendon is the rope of tissue that keeps the kneecap in place and stabilizes the joint. Davis had severed both of his patellar tendons. On Oct. 11 the knees were surgically repaired, and Davis's legs I were encased in plaster casts from thigh to ankle. He is confident that he will play football again, and his doctors are hoping for the best. For now, though, there is not much Davis can do but sit at home and read. His immediate choices: the Bible and How to Handle Adversity by Charles Stanley.

On the same afternoon that Davis was injured, Indianapolis Colt defensive tackle Steve Emtman turned sharply to pursue Dallas's Emmitt Smith and crashed to the artificial turf of the Hoosier Dome. His anterior cruciate ligament, medial collateral ligament and patellar tendon all ripped violently. Emtman is gone for the remainder of this season and may not be ready when camp opens in '94.

One week after Davis and Emtman went down, New York Giant wideout Mike Sherrard caught a pass and after a long run pulled up short on the artificial turf at Giants Stadium. He had partially dislocated his left hip and suffered a fracture of the hip socket. He, too, is gone for the season, and on Oct. 20 he was back in the hospital with a blood clot in his hip.

There are two factors linking the injuries of Davis, Emtman and Sherrard: None of the three had been touched by another player at the moment his injury occurred; and each injury was sustained on a field covered by artificial turf. Those circumstances have reignited the smoldering debate over the safety of artificial turf, which is currently used by 15 of the 28 NFL teams. After watching Davis and some of his Eagle players go down on AstroTurf (the only brand of artificial turf now in use in the NFL), Philadelphia trainer Otho Davis says he has finally come to believe that there is a link, between artificial turf and injuries. And the team physician of the Los Angeles Rams, Dr. Clarence Shields, says, "I know [artificial] turf is causing some injuries." Which is what players have been saying for years.

Last week the NFL appointed a committee of six physicians to study injuries. And in September the league launched a study of the relationship between injuries and the various kinds of shoes worn on artificial turf. "The situation cannot continue as it is," says an injury committee member, Dr. Joseph Torg, a professor of orthopedic surgery at the University of Pennsylvania and the team physician for the Eagles. Torg says that prodding the NFL to do something about injuries "is like moving an archaic monster.... But finally they're doing something."

While the formation of these committees is a welcome development, it follows by nearly a year a published study by one of the NFL's own experts that reveals that a greater number of certain knee injuries occurred on AstroTurf than on grass between 1980 and '89. John Powell, a research associate and trainer at the University of Iowa and director of the league's Injury Surveillance System, wrote in the November-December issue of the American Journal of Spoils Medicine, "Overall, there is a tendency for AstroTurf to be associated with an increased risk for knee sprains and MCL [medial collateral ligament] and ACL [anterior cruciate ligament] injuries under very specific conditions." Yet he concluded, "It may be that participation on AstroTurf is the most important of all risk factors or it may be well down the list of importance." Another factor, Powell suggested, could be the choice of shoes worn on AstroTurf. "Further research," he wrote, "is needed to resolve the issue."

Presumably that's what the new committees will embark on. In any case, the NFL agrees that Powell's study is inconclusive. "This study does not tell us anything new about the overall risks of playing on artificial turf," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello says.

The NFL Players Association did not win concessions regarding artificial turf in the collective bargaining agreement signed with the owners in June, though NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw says the union pressed as hard as it could for more grass fields. "NFL owners actually own maybe two or three stadiums in the league, and the rest are municipally owned," he says. "So it's not their decision to make. But we believe, as we always have, that players are hurt by the turf."

Of course, injuries and football go together like the Houston Oilers and under-achievement. Injuries will never be done away with, even if grass grows in every stadium. The Redskins have been decimated by injuries this year, and all the major ones—to tackle Jim Lachey, quarterback Mark Rypien, defensive end Charles Mann and linebacker Andre Collins—happened on grass. And even noncontact injuries occur on grass; witness Dan Marino's severed Achilles tendon at verdant Cleveland Stadium on Oct. 10.

So what exactly is wrong with AstroTurf? One complaint is that while it provides greater traction and, consequently, increased velocity, that same traction is a terrible liability when a player makes a sudden stop. When Davis and Emtman put on the brakes, their shoes dug into the AstroTurf and stopped cold. But the momentum of large, swift athletes cannot be arrested in an instant. Something has to give, and that something is often a fragile joint—a knee or an ankle. "When you twist and turn the foot [on AstroTurf]," Phoenix Cardinal team physician Russell Chick says, "it doesn't give like on natural turf. The foot will stay stationary."

Then there is the pounding that players take on AstroTurf. The thin carpet of synthetic fiber lies atop a layer of foam approximately half an inch thick, which is in turn spread on a base of porous asphalt. The surface, say the players, is far less resilient than grass.

This year players are directing much of their wrath at Veterans Stadium, where the five-year-old carpeting is rock-hard and in a sorry state of disrepair. Defensive tackle Keith Millard, an eight-year NFL veteran in his first year with the Eagles, says, "Every player hates playing here because the turf is unsafe and dangerous, by far the worst in the league. It's uneven, and the seams are exposed and split apart." Millard's teammate, cornerback Eric Allen, who has played his entire five-year career with the Eagles, adds, "It's bad just to walk on this stuff, never mind trying to play football on it."

Says Greg Grillone, the stadium director at Veterans Stadium, "It's not practical to have a grass field. I haven't seen evidence that AstroTurf is responsible for injuries. But with all the injuries this year, it docs make you scratch your head."

Indeed, league officials and front-office personnel maintain that the studies that have been done over the years have offered no proof that AstroTurf is more dangerous than grass. And the Balsam Corporation, the St. Louis-based company that purchased AstroTurf Industries from Monsanto in 1986, vigorously defends its product. Balsam has been named as a defendant in fewer than 10 damage suits relating to playing-field injuries, and the company says that it has never been "proven liable in litigation brought against it for injuries on AstroTurf." Says Balsam CEO Mike McGraw, "Everything that we've seen is that there is no significant difference in level or type of injuries on synthetic surfaces."

As for the study conducted by Powell, even he urges that it be regarded with caution. "No one disputes that players are sorer after playing on artificial turf," he says, "but whether it is the single causative agent for injuries more than other factors, I don't believe you can say that." Still, his statistics are intriguing. Powell examined three types of knee injuries that occurred in the NFL on grass and on AstroTurf from 1980 through '89. (The study showed that 45.9% of the games in that decade were played on grass and 46.5% on AstroTurf; other brands of artificial turf were not included in the study.) For each of these injuries there was a somewhat greater incidence on AstroTurf than on grass. However, when Powell examined injuries during special teams play—even though the sample was small—there was a marked difference: 223 injuries on AstroTurf, 164 on grass. Powell further concluded that 54 knee injuries were "attributable to participation on AstroTurf." Among those 54 episodes, Powell identified special teams plays on AstroTurf as the combination most likely to lead to knee injury. "Of the 18 ACL sprains attributable to AstroTurf...14 to members of the kicking unit may have been prevented had there been no participation on AstroTurf," he wrote.

So would it be worth the expense to rip out the artificial turf in the seven open-air stadiums that use it? Would it be worth trying to install grass in the NFL's seven domed stadiums, which was once viewed as horticultural folly but could someday be feasible? (The Pontiac Silverdome, home of the Detroit Lions, will have grass inside for World Cup soccer games next year. During a soccer test there last summer, temporary grass thrived.)

Stadium administrators insist that the cost of maintaining a grass field is prohibitive compared with that of maintaining artificial turf. But in the case of football-only stadiums, that is not true. The Chicago Bears switched from AstroTurf to grass at Soldier Field in 1988 after finding that the initial cost for installing AstroTurf was slightly more than $1 million and the cost of putting in grass was around $700,000. "It would cost an additional $25,000 to $40,000 to maintain a grass field," says Tim LeFevour, the Bears' director of administration. "Over 10 years the cost of grass will even out with the cost for AstroTurf." And 10 years is the approximate life span of an AstroTurf carpel.

The New England Patriots also switched from turf to grass in their football-only facility. Of the remaining football-only stadiums, four still have AstroTurf—Rich Stadium (the Buffalo Bills), the Meadowlands (the Jets and the Giants), Arrowhead Stadium (the Kansas City Chiefs) and Texas Stadium (the Dallas Cowboys). Arenas that host baseball and football would require more maintenance, but the cost would presumably be shared by the two teams. And that cost could hardly be seen as excessive when measured against the loss to injury of a $2.5 million-a-year player like Emtman.

Stadium administrators also argue that grass can't take the pounding it would be subjected to in busy arenas. Not true again, according to Bill Daniel, the inventor of Prescription Athletic Turf, a natural-grass maintenance system used in many football stadiums, including, in the NFL, Soldier Field, Miami's Joe Robbie Stadium, Washington's RFK Stadium and Mile High Stadium in Denver. Giants Stadium has 30 pro, college and high school football games a year, and rock concerts require that the field be covered by tarps for a week at a time. Could grass flourish there? "Yes," says Daniel. "Grass has a tremendous ability to recover. It can go about five days without light. There have been multiple-date concert events at Mile High Stadium, and it's survived well."

So the players are left to hope that the doctors' committee will endorse grass fields, and that the committee studying the shoe-to-artificial-turf-to-injury relationship will find better ways to make play on plastic less hazardous. Says Eagle linebacker Seth Joyner, "The human body wasn't made to stop and start and take the impact we put it through. So we know injuries are going to happen. We just think they can be cut back, and we don't see anybody doing anything about them."

The point is that one crucial variable in this violent game—playing conditions—can and must be improved.

PHOTODAVID WALBERGDavis (82) came down hard after his patellar tendons tore, an injury that will leave him plenty of time for his daughter Sydney (left).PHOTORICH CHAPMAN/CHICAGO SUN-TIMES[See caption above.]ILLUSTRATIONSTANFORD KAY/PARAGRAPHICSAstroTurf
Shock Pad
Permeable Asphalt
Crushed Store
Perforated PVC Pipe
Engineering Fabric
Drain Tube
Collector Drains
Plastic Liner
PHOTOJOHN BIEVEREmtman's injury was so severe that he may not be back in '94.PHOTOAPSherrard suffered a blood clot in the hip he injured on the AstroTurf at Giants Stadium.PHOTOLOU CAPOZZOLARagged seams in the AstroTurf, like this one on a Giants Stadium goal line, are a hazard.

The plastic surface rests on a foundation of padding, asphalt and crushed stone that is designed for rapid drainage, but some players feel that it is too unforgiving.

Prescription AthleticTurf
PAT's natural, resilient surface is popular with players, and its drainage design has earned high marks from stadium managers.