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Wednesday, June 28, 2006

On Astroturf v. Grass v. Field Turf v. Kentucky Blue Grass

GROUND RULES- Looking at the differences between playing football on natural and artificial surfaces.

The debate over the "ideal" playing surface has been going on for quite a few years now. When artificial playing surfaces began to appear in the late 1960’s Football purists began to wonder aloud if the game was changing for the worse. "The absolute worst thing that could ever happen to the game," said Former Alabama Coaching great Paul "Bear" Bryant. NFL owners, looking for a way to cut the cost of upkeep of their stadiums, had contracted Monsanto Corporation to develop
a type of artificial grass that they would call "Astroturf". It made its first professional football appearance at the Houston Astrodome, and soon began showing up in other buildings throughout the League.

Many players and coaches who were considered to be purists to the game did not care for the new surface. They preferred the cushion that a real grass surface gave them, over the artificial bounce of "The Rug" as it was being called. But looking at both sides of the coin, each surface has it’s good and bad points.

An Artificial surface, while being extremely strong and durable, and able to withstand great amounts of wear and tear over the course of several seasons, as well as hold incredible amounts of water with the proper drainage system, does have one major fault. Under its playing surface is cold hard cement. Once that surface begins to loose it’s cushion (or bounce), it can be very hard to fall down on it without sustaining serious injury. It can also freeze hard during the temperature drops that take place in the northern portions of the country.

A natural surface (like Kentucky Blue Grass) can be more forgiving to players to land hard on it. It is also less stressful on players recovering of lower limb stress injuries then artificial surfaces. However, even the best prescription playing surfaces can not handle constant flooding even with a good runoff drainage system, and can freeze almost as hard as a wet artificial surface can (like soldier field) in cold weather. Although many players will tell you they like grass better then turf, some of those same players have better performance numbers on turf then on grass.

Sports medicine specialists across the country note that more players get hurt on turf every year then on grass. I spoke with two prominent New York City Chiropractors who specialize in sports injuries. One is the official team chiropractor to a major catholic High School’s sports program, and the other treats several hundred people a week, and by his own admission fully one third of whom are sports related stress injuries. "I constantly tell young kids playing on these surfaces to be very careful, and do their best to try and play on a grass field instead. The pressure of resistance from your lower body pounding itself against a hard surface is causing long term damage to ligaments, tendons, and the joints themselves," said one.

Many players will try to get to a team with a natural surface once they have had a knee or ankle injury on turf. One NFL running back popped both knees on the grass at Soldier Field in 1998, and had to retire in 2000 because he was never able to cut the same way.

The NFL conducted it’s own study in 1997 and determined that there was no significant increase in injuries on turf. Even so, many teams are going back to natural grass surfaces, or at least experimenting with them. Recently the first NFL game on a grass surface was played in Giants stadium, a building that has had an artificial surface since it opened in 1976. Even player agents are beginning to get into the act, by trying to help their players get to teams with Grass surfaces if that is what they desire. More recently, a new surface has been invented and is being rolled out across the NFL and college Football. Called
"Field Turf" it's grass is made of plastic sewn together, with a sponge rubber base that absorbs water. Under the base is a composite of pebbles and sand mixed together to aid in fast drainage. "The wave of the future in stadium surfaces," says George Toma, the "God of Sod."

It seems that the debate will continue for a long time before we have a solid answer to the question of "What is a better playing surface?"

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