NFL Player’s Association President and Former Packers’ Center JC Tretter: Artificial Turf is Causing Surge in Injuries
As a beginner learning the pros and cons of being a professional soccer player, I remember the collective moans of my older teammates when it was announced that we would be training indoors on artificial turf instead of the usual outdoor lawn. I played almost exclusively on artificial turf in college. As I began to experience both surfaces interchangeably, I began to understand exactly why my teammates didn’t like the exercises on grass. Whenever I practiced on an artificial field surface, my joints felt noticeably stiffer the next day. The unforgiving nature of artificial turf increases the stress on the body that we already bear while playing a contact sport.
OnFocus Athlete of the Week October 4-10
OnFocus Team of the week October 4-10
First a little physics: professional soccer players exert a lot of force and rotation on the playing surface. Grass eventually gives way, often releasing the cleat before a noxious load is reached. There’s less sag on synthetic surfaces, which means our feet, ankles, and knees absorb the force, making injuries more likely.
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The data backs up the anecdotes you will hear from me and other players: Artificial turf is much harder for the body than grass. Based on NFL injury data collected from 2012 to 2018, not only was the contact injury rate for the lower extremities higher during training and games on artificial turf, NFL players consistently experienced a much higher rate of non-contact lower extremity injuries on the turf as compared too natural surfaces. Specifically, players have a 28% higher rate of non-contact lower extremity injuries when playing on artificial turf. Of these non-contact injuries, players have a 32% higher rate of non-contact knee injuries on turf and a staggering 69% higher rate of non-contact foot / ankle injuries on turf compared to grass.
Earlier this year, the NFL and NFLPA hired artificial turf manufacturers to develop a surface, such as natural grass, that would meet specifications developed by our respective engineering experts. We have also challenged cleat manufacturers to design innovative shoes that are safer and tailored to the needs of players and specific surfaces. There is no guarantee that artificial turf manufacturers will be able to develop a product that offers a surface as safe as natural turf. So we shouldn’t hop around and hope that this happens. Until a product is developed that meets the technical specifications, we must take steps to protect players from unsafe field surfaces. In summary, NFL clubs should proactively convert all field surfaces to natural grass.
These dates are clear, so everyone involved in our sport should be equally motivated to make this switch. For the players, we can be stronger advocates for ourselves by continuing to demand safer standards. It is much easier for coaches and CEOs to build a successful team with a healthy squad. For NFL owners, making any decision to protect their most important investment – the player – should be a breeze.
Climate and weather are no obstacles to the practice of natural grass or playing fields. Cold climate teams like the Packers, Steelers and Browns successfully cultivate natural grass fields. Indoor stadiums should also not be a barrier to lawns. The Cardinals and Raiders have figured out how to create a natural grass play surface indoors. Agronomically Natural grass surfaces are possible anywhere.
You may be thinking, “But I thought all fields are being inspected?” It is true that NFL-NFLPA inspectors rate practice and playing fields through the Clegg test, which measures the hardness of the surface. However, the Clegg test is extremely limited in its ability to tell us about the performance or safety of a field and is nowhere near as comprehensive for the needs of the modern game. Our union has raised this concern repeatedly over the past few years and we believe it is now time for a complete overhaul.
Our job is dangerous enough and the increased rate of lower extremity injuries associated with the surface of the field on which we must play is unacceptable. The NFLPA advocates that teams convert artificial practice and playing fields into natural grass fields. In the meantime, we are fighting on behalf of our players to develop better safety standards and testing methods for artificial turf. There is room for innovation with artificial turf manufacturers, but until the risk of injury on turf mirrors the risk on turf, playing on turf is not in the best interests of our players.
And finally, a brief note on our fight against the ongoing pandemic. As we have unfortunately seen in the last few days, the virus is still very present in our communities. We know that many in our league – and our country too – are tired of following protocols that have been implemented to stop the virus from spreading. If we needed a reminder of the vigilance everyone needs to do their part, we definitely got it. The game book for an entire season is very clear and we can’t let complacency interfere with progress so far.