QUESTION: After watching the BYU-Oregon football game, I began to wonder about artificial turf. I know that the footing is not as good because I saw our players slipping all over, but is it more dangerous to play on, too? Why do some schools use artificial turf while others use regular grass? Wouldn't it be better if every school used the same type of surface?
ANSWER: An article in the October 1989 issue of Physician and Sportsmedicine discussed the issue of artificial turf, and I will use this article as the basis for the answers to your questions.First, the major reason for using artificial turf probably relates to cost. Not only is it less expensive, but it's easier to maintain. In addition, the wear and tear of football limits the number of events that can be scheduled on most grass fields. This limits the use of stadiums where both football and baseball are played.
Another problem relates to the difficulty of growing and maintaining a grass field in domed stadiums, and many football facilities are now covered.
Whether artificial turf is really more dangerous or not is difficult to tell. When responding to surveys, football players consistently cite turf as the most important hazard they face, and some researchers are convinced that certain types of injuries are more common on artificial turf than on grass.
For instance, one expert said more ankle and foot injuries occur on turf because the foot stays locked to the surface while the body rotates. Other injuries such as "turf toe" are more common because grass surfaces give more when an athlete pushes off for a play.
One other problem relates to speed. Since artificial turf allows more speed, there are also harder collisions, and players may also receive more trauma when they land.
Research about injury on artificial turf is mixed. One study looked at National Football League injury data from 1980 to 1985 and concluded that a team playing 20 games on artificial turf would have one to four more reportable injuries and one more major knee or ankle injury per season than if all games were played on regular grass. A more recent study found no difference in the number of significant injuries (two consecutive games missed) or major injuries (eight consecutive games) among athletes who played on grass and those who played on artificial turf.
The problem with these studies probably relates to the difficulty of comparing the level of injury in various studies. Further, there are many different brands of artificial turf, and some of the newer turfs are different from the older types. In addition, grass fields can be quite different; some dry, others lush, some smooth and some rough. Some teams even practice on one type of field and play on another, and some of the injuries may come during practice.
Some researchers have suggested exploring the turf-shoe interface rather than the turf vs. grass debate, since it is easier to change shoes than turfs. By examining the degree of traction between the athlete's shoe and the turf, researchers could determine the safest shoes for a given surface. Of course, the safest shoe may give the poorest traction, so a happy medium would have to be reached so that traction would be good, but not so good as to increase injuries.
In any case, as of now, no one really seems to know which of the surfaces is better, and there is no way to standardize all the fields used to play football.