By: Mary Robertson
A flat, green, perfectly lined field is the dream of every athlete that plays outdoors. A field with no bumps or valleys, no hills or slants, no dirt patches or patches of thicker grass. A field where the ball can roll smoothly. A field where sliding does not cause serious cuts or scrapes. A field with well-maintained green grass. The easiest way to achieve this perfect playing field would be to play on turf. In athletics, more so in professional athletics, there is a great debate about which is a better playing surface, grass or turf.
In Major League Baseball, artificial turf was first used in 1966. Baseball paved the road for other sports to begin using turf. By 1982, 10 of the 26 MLB teams had artificial turf fields. But when the 2015 season came around, only two teams had artificial turf fields. While analyses on games played on grass and turf have shown no significant differences, it is clear that grass is the preferred surface. “Personally, I wish it would have been gone a long time ago.” Said Hall of Famer Andre Dawson. After playing 11 seasons on turf, Dawson had 12 knee surgeries and lost a lot of skin off his arms. But the turf was not all bad in baseball, some teams found a way to use it to their advantage. For example, the Kansas City Royals used the hard smooth surface to scoot the ball past infielders. Once the turf was taken out, they had one winning season in the ten years that followed.
Some athletes absolutely hate playing on turf. Abby Wambach, United States Women’s National Team star forward, described playing on turf as “kind of a nightmare.” Wambach was one of the over 40 international women soccer players that filed a lawsuit against FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association when it was announced that the 2015 Women’s World Cup would be played on turf. In a four page letter to FIFA and CSA, it was stated that artificial turf is “a surface widely recognized as inferior in international soccer.” Even when FIFA deemed turf as a quality surface to play on in 2015, they stated that they would “always prefer a perfectly manicured grass pitch to an artificial surface.”
When comparing natural grass and artificial turf in the context of soccer, there are three different things to compare. The first is the game itself, meaning the play and pace of the game, due to the fact that the game is played on the ground. Turf is a very smooth surface, which causes the ball to roll faster and smoother. A California experiment found that a high impact kick will travel 88% further on artificial turf than on natural grass, and a low impact kick will travel 81% further on turf than on grass. This greatly speeds up the pace of the game.
The second point to compare is recovery time. Due to how hard turf is compared to grass, some soccer players claim to feel a difference in recovery time. “I feel more sore after turf, it takes longer to recover from a turf field than natural grass,” stated Alex Morgan, member of the USWNT, when she was arguing for grass fields to be put in for the 2015 World Cup. Washington Spirit player, Alex Singer, although she did not play in the 2015 Women’s World Cup, echoed Morgan: “It takes longer for me to recover after a match on turf.” When the foot strikes the ground while running, a shock is absorbed from the foot, up through the knees, hips, and lower back. If the ground is a little bit softer, then it will absorb some of the shock, taking some of the pressure off the knees, hips, and lower back. But when the surface is hard, such as concrete, all of the shock is absorbed by the runner. The bottom two layers of a turf field are two feet of crushed stone and nine inches of concrete, causing turf to be harder than most grass fields. This explains the longer recovery time that players such as Morgan talked about.
Countless studies have been done on soccer players comparing serious injuries on turf to those on natural grass the conclusions range from turf causing more injuries to turf being safer than natural grass. While there is no definite conclusion on serious injuries, minor injuries such as cuts and scrapes are significantly more common on artificial turf. USWNT forward, Sydney Leroux posted a picture of her bruised legs to her twitter after playing a game on turf in April 2013 with the caption “This is why soccer should be played on grass!” Commonly known as turf burn, the scrapes on players’ legs, hips, and arms come from sliding and falling on turf. Wambach even said that when playing on turf she does not play as courageously. “I don’t dive for balls and slide as much. Grass stains are a lot easier to get out than scars.”
In the midst of fighting for grass fields for the World Cup, Wambach stated “There is no [soccer] player in the world, male or female, who would prefer to play on artificial turf.” Unlike soccer players, there are some football players who prefer to play on artificial turf. In the 2015 season, the Houston Texans had replaced their natural grass field with artificial turf. Quarterback J.J. Watts told reporters that he would “have some objections if we were playing in a parking lot. But the turf, grass, it doesn’t matter to me.” In a 2010 survey of the NFL Players Association, 69.4% of players preferred natural grass, 14.3% preferred artificial turf, and 9% had no preference. In the same survey, they found that 82% of players believed that turf caused more injuries than grass. The NFLPA has not surveyed players about turf since 2010. When looking at injuries, a 2012 study at Stanford University School of Medicine found that collegiate football players had 40% more knee injuries when playing on artificial turf as opposed to natural grass. And in 2014, the American Academy of Neurology found that playing on turf puts football players at a higher risk for concussions.
Playing on artificial turf affects different games in different ways and it does have other benefits that go beyond the play of a game. A common misconception is that turf is more manageable and, in the long run, cheaper to maintain. This is not particularly true. Turf and natural grass require different kinds of maintenance. With natural grass, mowing, watering, and fertilizing need to be done regularly. Artificial turf requires brushing the surface and refilling infill levels among other things. Turf is more profitable because it can be used even during inclement weather and following heavy rains, making it also more practical for fields that have a variety of activities. This does not overshadow the fact that many professional athletes consider turf an inferior surface to natural grass. To achieve the highest quality of play, a well-kept natural grass field is necessary. In an official statement from FIFA that deemed turf as a quality surface to play on in 2015, they stated that they would “always prefer a perfectly manicured grass pitch to an artificial surface,” which only furthers the notion that natural grass is better than turf.