Injuries abounded once again this year in the National Football League and one of the causes is the artificial turf that covers the stadium floors used by 15 out of 28 NFL teams. Yet the owners, who make megamillions and pay millions to their players, watch indifferently from their luxury boxes as one athlete after another is lost for the season or ends his career.
Some of the game’s greatest stars — such as Gayle Sayers, Billy Simms, Jack Lambert — attribute to the heard unyielding fake turf career-ending injuries.
More recently, Wendell Davis of the Chicago Bears, playing at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia against the Eagles, suffered ripped patella tendons in both knees on a play where his feet caught in the turf and his legs buckled. Mike Sherrard, the great wide receiver for the New York Giants, was completing a 50 yard run off a pass reception by making a cut with this left foot. His foot stuck to the Giants Stadium artificial turf and he fell to the surface with a fractured and dislocated hip. No one had touched him on the play.
Eagle players compare playing on this turf to playing on a cement floor covered by a bedsheet. The majority of season-ending injuries in 1991 occurred on artificial surfaces. A surface of players a few years ago by the Players Association found that 83 percent of the athletes preferred playing on real grass which has a “give” to it. The owners (the National Football League) have no official position on the controversy.
However, the trend is swinging toward grass. The Chicago Bears and the Boston Patriots have switched to grass, while the Dallas Cowboys and Kansas City Chiefs are seriously considering making the move to natural surface.
“That (stuff) shouldn’t be anywhere,” says running back, Marcus Allen, referring to artificial turf. “It’s like a faulty car. Sooner or later, it gets you.” He should know. He suffered a blown-out knee while trying to make a cut at the Astrodome over two years ago with no player tackling him.
An authority on sports injuries, Dr. James Garrick, did a study on knee injuries in the late Eighties, concluding that “the continued use of turf cannot be justified.”
While there are disputes as to whether the same injuries would have occurred on grass, the injury known as “turf toe” is a specialty of artificial turf surfaces. “Turf toe” is a painful hyperextension of the joint caused by jamming the big toe against fields that feel like a light rug over concrete.
More frequent are painful raw skin burns that lead to staph infections. The macho players don’t even count those as injuries.
With over 80 percent of the football players saying that artificial surfaces cause their greatest source of preventable injuries, why, after 25 or more years of this turf, don’t the team owners do something?
First, owners like artificial turf because it looks better on television and has lower maintenance costs. But what about the maintenance costs on the players — who lose games and championships due to such injuries? Joe Montana was knocked out of the AFC championship game, when his helmeted head hit the hard artificial surface — an impact noted pointedly by the television announcer. What did that cost the Kansas City Chiefs?
In reply, the owners say they don’t own the stadiums and if the stadium proprietors want artificial turf for football and other sports, there is little they can do.
Such admission of weakness is not believable. These are the same team owners, after all, who demand big tax breaks and all kinds of stadium alterations (e.g. luxury boxes) as the price for their staying where they are or going to another city. It is hardly beyond their bargaining power to stand by their expensive players for a safer workplace.
Well, it turns out that Paul Tagliabue, Commissioner of the National Football League, is worried too — finally. He has assured Gene Upshaw, executive director of the Players Association, that some action will be taken. New kinds of grass are being developed that can be used in domed stadiums.
My guess is that unless the fans start protesting over losing players on their favorite teams because of the ignorant corporate insistence on keeping artificial turf, decisions to use real grass may be postponed indefinitely. A fans revolt will focus attention on other sports — professional and amateur -allowing such turf to harm their players — right down to some high school football fields.
Interested readers may wish to express their opinion by writing to Paul Tagliabue, National Football League, 410 Park Avenue, New York, NY, 10022.