The NFL Turf Battle | SportsE Media

The NFL Turf Battle

Artificial turf has been a part of sports for over 55 years, dating all the way back to 1966. While turf has made many improvements over the years, we are still seeing an alarming disparity in injuries and arguments about player safety because of these surfaces. The debate over artificial turf versus natural grass in the NFL (i.e. the NFL turf battle) has been a long-standing controversy among fans, players, and experts. While most argue (and the statistics show) that grass is the obvious choice, it’s essential to understand the factors that have contributed to the prevalence of turf in the league and explore some of the reasons that could make it difficult for the league to implement grass in all 32 NFL stadiums. We’ll explore the issues surrounding this topic including injuries, geographical challenges, player and expert opinions, and the successes of grass fields overseas. Additionally, we will look into technological advancements and innovative maintenance practices that could facilitate a smoother transition to grass for the NFL.

Injuries on Turf: A Cause for Concern and Where the NFL Turf Battle Begins

The most pressing argument against artificial turf in the NFL is the significant risk it poses to player safety. The unforgiving surface of turf has been a direct link to injuries, especially when comparing the frequency and number of injuries to grass fields. Many players have come out and spoken against turf fields stating that their bones and joints ache and feel stiff after playing on a turf field, as well as the fact that turf can tear up skin when sliding and falling on it which of course happens every single play in an NFL football game. Grass has much more give and is more forgiving to the harsh sudden movements these athletes make. Especially since these athletes wear cleats, the cleats are able to rip through the grass and make these movements much smoother. However, on turf, there is less give and players can sometimes get stuck in the field which means that their feet, knees, and ankles take all of the impact. The toughness of the turf can lead to an injury caused by their momentum, or worse, taking a hit from someone while rooted into the ground. Retired Browns lineman and current President of the NFL Players Association JC Tretter is a big advocate for grass fields. He found injury data from 2012-2018 in the NFL and found some eye-popping data from the research published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine. Their findings showed that NFL players suffer a 28% higher rate of non-contact lower extremity injuries when playing on artificial turf. Of these injuries, there is a 32% increase in injuries to the knee and a shocking 69% higher rate of foot and ankle injuries.

Although players have been calling for the removal of turf for many years, the first Monday Night Football game of the 2023 season sparked outrage in the argument as future Hall of Fame quarterback Aaron Rodgers tore his Achilles after having his leg stuck in the turf while getting tackled. What was supposed to be an exciting night in the NFL quickly turned dark. Rodgers, 39, was making his debut with the New York Jets which was just the second team he’s ever been with, and within his first few plays, his entire season was over. The New York Jets and Giants both share MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey which has become infamous for causing some gruesome injuries. Just within the last 3 years, Nick Bosa, Kyle Fuller, and Sterling Shepard have all suffered season-ending injuries (Shepard has had two: torn Achilles and ACL) and now Rodgers joins the list of MetLife’s victims. With Rodgers’ age being a factor, such a devastating injury raises concerns over the likelihood of him being able to play football again. The backlash that stemmed from this injury was immediate. No matter who you’re a fan of these are just things you don’t want to see, especially when the NFL has the resources to prevent such things from happening and protect the health and careers of their players.

Geographical Challenges and Climate Considerations

While natural grass is the preferred playing surface for many, it’s essential to acknowledge the geographical challenges faced by NFL teams. The league consists of franchises located in various climates, each presenting unique obstacles for grass field maintenance. The current state of the NFL is almost an even split, with 16 teams playing on turf, 14 playing on grass, and 2 stadiums that utilize Desso Grassmaster which is a combination of natural grass and some artificial fibers. A big argument for those who use turf is maintenance. It is of course much easier to uphold than natural grass, as grass needs to be mowed, fertilized, and irrigated very often. Turf on the other hand mainly just needs to be resurfaced and lightly kept in shape as there is much less wear and tear on turf than grass fields. However, is this enough of a reason to risk the health of the players? With the NFL’s revenue and resources turf almost feels like a way for the league to cut corners.

The next argument that comes into play is the location and climate that these stadiums are in. There are stadiums on both sides of the coin with extreme heat in Arizona, Texas, Florida, and California, as well as freezing temperatures in New York, Foxborough, Chicago, and Green Bay. Many of these stadiums pose great arguments as to why grass should be the only answer for NFL playing fields. For example, two of the hottest locations in the NFL are Phoenix, Arizona with summer temperatures reaching anywhere from 115-120 degrees Fahrenheit and Las Vegas, Nevada also recording triple-digit heat, and yet, both the Cardinals and Raiders still have a natural grass field. While their fields and stadium roofs are both retractable, if these two franchises are able to expend enough resources to maintain a healthy grass field in extreme heat warnings for months on end, there’s no reason for stadiums in much better climates to have turf. As for cold weather locations, there is more of a mix. Some notably cold cities that use grass are Kansas City, Denver, and Chicago, while the coldest turf locations are Orchard Park (Buffalo Bills), East Rutherford (New York Jets/Giants), and Foxborough (New England Patriots). There is more variety here because grass is tougher to maintain in such freezing climates compared to the heat. Grass that is properly cared for in cold weather can become dormant, meaning it may appear dead, but is still alive and well and will look that way come Spring. However, it is recommended that grass in this state does not get stepped on or mowed, which is obviously impossible in the NFL. Even with the proper and professional care that the NFL possesses, there is not much that can be done especially if there is snow which can freeze the blades of grass as well as the ground which means the roots are no longer able to circulate water and essentially freeze to death. Obviously, this brings challenges and is probably the biggest hurdle in advocating for grass across every stadium, until you remember that NFL franchises are worth billions of dollars and can afford every solution possible.

One answer is the retractable field, which the Cardinals and Raiders already use that can wheeled in and out of the stadium for maintenance to be done and to be covered if needed. One team that may want to look into this as they begin to break ground on their new home is the Buffalo Bills. They’ve had many famous snow games in recent years and most NFL fans can picture Shady McCoy dashing through the Buffalo snow in their bright red uniforms, however, playing on a blizzard-covered turf field may as well be plain concrete. The Bills will be getting a new home in 2026 and based on renderings released by the team, this new stadium will also be open like their current location. While this tough and gritty style of play is a part of the Bills culture, it wouldn’t hurt to at least include the retractable field technology to protect the field from the mountains of snowfall which would not only save the grounds crew tons of work, but it could open the door for a grass field. Many do believe this open stadium design was intentional as it’s a part of having to face Buffalo at the end of the season, you have to come in and deal with these rigid temperatures and the edge that the Bills Mafia brings on those freezing cold nights. As a visitor, it is not a fun place to play. The Tennessee Titans also have plans to move into a new home in 2026. They currently play on natural grass despite Nissan Stadium being an open-air design. However, this new $2.1 billion stadium will be an indoor stadium in order to protect their grass from any weather Nashville throws at them as it gets quite warm in the summer but can still produce snowy winters. Other teams that should be looking to be next on this list are both the Jets and Giants, as well as the Patriots. As previously mentioned, MetLife stadium has done quite a number on NFL players and this stadium has the strongest case of anyone in the league to convert to grass. As for the Patriots, they’re in a similar situation to the Bills, where Foxborough has become quite notorious for being a very difficult environment to play in from October through January. While they have been fortunate enough to not experience the same curses that haunt MetLife’s field, a stiff turf field in single-digit weather is still not ideal for any NFL athlete and the team could benefit from some newer technology in their 21-year-old stadium. This applies more than ever for the Patriots as they are coming fresh off of a remodel this summer that saw some cosmetic changes such as a larger scoreboard and a new and improved lighthouse that will serve as a new pre-game tradition for years to come.

These geographical challenges have led many NFL teams to opt for artificial turf, which requires less water, is more resistant to extreme weather, and can be used year-round. However, the safety and performance concerns associated with turf persist, leaving teams and fans divided, as the NFL is more than capable of putting more of a focus (and budget) into quality playing surfaces for their athletes.

The Premier League’s Success with Grass

More compelling arguments that point towards grass as the best choice is comparing the NFL to professional soccer leagues overseas. Major European soccer leagues include the Premier League in England, La Liga in Spain, Ligue 1 in France, Serie A in Italy, and the Bundesliga in Germany. While the Serie A and Bundesliga do feature some hybrid field stadiums that have a mixture of natural grass and artificial fibers (similar to the Packers and Eagles fields), the Premier League, La Liga, and Ligue 1 have actually banned turf as a playing surface in their leagues. The English Premier League, one of the most popular and arguably most talented soccer league globally, have very technologically advanced pitches. They are actually 95% sand with millions of polyethylene fibers stitched into the base, so the pitch resembles more of a carpet-like surface making them 95% natural and 5% synthetic. This structure makes it so that they can endure hours more of playing time while recovering much quicker than fully natural surfaces. This also means there is no chance of a flooded field, even with heavy rains these strands stitched over the gravel and sand maintain their structure so it is almost as good as new whether it’s rain or shine. This also prevents extra wear even on a natural grass field where rain can create mud and a really sloppy pitch with patches that are unplayable due to the wear and tear of a 90-minute match, and data shows that today’s matches are 20% faster than they were two decades ago solely based on pitch quality. The most valuable reason behind the Premier League’s investment in these pitches is of course the players’ safety. The risk and frequency of injury is drastically lower on grass as we’ve discussed, and this is no different for soccer players. The majority of injuries in soccer come from collisions with other players rather than torn ligaments caused by stiff unforgiving playing surfaces. The success of grass in the Premier League has lasted since the ban against turf was instated in 1995, so it begs the question: why won’t the NFL replicate this model? While it may not be possible to replicate the exact conditions of European soccer fields in the NFL because of the style of sport and various climates, it does highlight the clear benefits of grass or at the very least, hybrid fields.

A major topic of conversation in the coming years will be the 2026 World Cup, which is set to be hosted in North America. While Canada and Mexico will host matches in two and three stadiums respectively, the United States will host matches in eleven stadiums. As of now, seven of them are turf fields. However, it is possible for these stadiums to install grass for such a monumental event. BC Place, home of the Vancouver Whitecaps in Canada, plans to remove their turf and install grass for the World Cup, which would mean that all five venues outside of the States would be grass surfaces like these players are accustomed to. The NFL on the other hand, would be playing a dangerous game if they chose not to follow suit and leave their turf fields in place. Imagine the world’s brightest stars representing their country, competing for soccer’s most prestigious honor and someone blows out their knee at MetLife Stadium. With the current trend that the NFL is seeing when it comes to their athlete’s health, an injury-riddled World Cup could very well alter North America’s chances of hosting another World Cup anytime soon after 2026. Should something like this happen, it could also force their hand to where FIFA wouldn’t allow any more events to happen at these stadiums unless the playing surfaces match those that we see in Europe’s highest level of competitions. While no one would ever want to see things get to that level, especially when it’s so avoidable, perhaps the conversations surrounding this topic in the build-up to 2026 will force a change before the World Cup even kicks off.

Technological Advancements and Innovative Maintenance

Advancements in technology and innovative maintenance practices offer hope for NFL teams seeking to transition to grass fields. The most innovative field tech the NFL had seen was in 2006 when the Cardinals introduced their rolling field. However, after 17 years there have been some major improvements and developments in this area.

The first is hybrid grass systems. Hybrid grass fields are a combination of natural grass with synthetic fibers to improve durability and playability. We’ve already touched on this field technology a little bit with both the Eagles and Packers using this type of field for their stadiums. The Desso GrassMaster is a popular choice as it is used in the NFL and for a short period of time, the Steelers also used a Desso GrassMaster field at their former Heinz Field. These systems have been adopted by several high-profile stadiums, offering a compromise between natural grass and artificial turf and many high-profile Premier League Stadiums also use this style of field including Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, Manchester United’s Old Trafford, and Wembley Stadium where the English national team plays.

The next advancement has already played a huge factor in the push to remove turf: underground heating systems. In cold-weather cities, underground heating systems could be vital if a team chooses to have a natural grass field as it would keep the grass from freezing, ensuring it remains playable no matter the conditions and temperatures. This seems like the clear and obvious solution for the teams we mentioned earlier (Bills, Jets, Giants, Patriots) as they would be able to cover the field up in the event of snow and insulate the heat coming from the underground system to ensure a soft and clean playing surface rather than the still block of ice they have to deal with now.

Overall, fields nowadays whether it be grass, turf, or a hybrid, have very advanced management and systems in place. A huge improvement that every field has taken seriously is improving their drainage systems. A poor drainage system can result in a field becoming a soggy, lumpy, and mushy surface. One of the most advanced developments being utilized all over the sporting world is LED grow lights. German soccer club Bayern Munich were the first to introduce the LED grow lighting for their entire pitch in their stadium, and many have followed suit including Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City, and Juventus. This is an alternative to the floodlights that were used to seeing and can save up to 40% in energy consumption. This move was influenced by their dark and cold winters which saw their grass conditions suffer during that time of the year. However, an LED grow lighting system means that their pitch quality and conditions will remain the same year-round.

Another exciting innovation in the sporting world is the retractable field, but not just like the Cardinals or Raiders, this advancement takes it a few steps further. Debuting in 2019 with Tottenham Hotspur and now in 2023 with Real Madrid, these two clubs have a system in place where one click of a button can construct and deconstruct the field by sliding various pieces in and out of place, much like a puzzle for example. Not only can this protect fields from Mother Nature, but it can also make maintenance much easier as well. For example, Real Madrid has their LED grow lighting underground so that when the pitch is put away it is getting the proper care to stay in top shape. Apart from just field maintenance, this would be a great business move for the NFL, as this would open the door for many other major events like concerts or even other sporting events such as a basketball game while the field is in perfect condition tucked away. There seems to be a bit of a pattern forming here, soccer has it figured out. The NFL has been handed the blueprint and all they have to do now is follow it.

The final technological advancement that the NFL could put into practice comes straight from their own advertising: IBM Watson. Every Sunday when you’re watching football, you’ll see commercials for their IBM data tracking technology that can monitor and track just about everything on any given play. Watson can track things like the likelihood of a pass being complete or incomplete, the risk of injury on any given tackle, and various other problems and solutions through this data-driven monitoring. With the advancements of this tracking, there should be data available on the conditions in each city and field to spot potential risks of injury and locations that need to be tended to and repaired. Technology is advancing every day and with the NFL’s pursuit of data tracking and analytics, these possibilities should be no-brainers in order to ensure that each and every surface their athletes step onto is of the highest quality.

The NFL Turf Battle Conclusion

The debate between turf and grass in the NFL is a multifaceted issue with valid arguments on both sides. Turf requires less maintenance and can withstand extreme weather better, but injuries, technological advancements, innovative maintenance practices, and the successes of soccer in countless countries overseas offer hope for a transition to grass fields in the future. While it may not be a one-size-fits-all solution, finding ways to incorporate natural grass into the league could ultimately lead to a safer and more enjoyable NFL experience for players and fans alike. Hopefully, the NFL acts on some ideas and solutions before their current problem continues to worsen and force their hand.

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