Does the NFL have a turf problem?
There’s been a pretty heated conversation bubbling below the surface of the NFL for a few years now. After Week 1’s Monday Night game, it could be time it moves to the spotlight.
The league’s season-opening Monday Night Football matchup between the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills was supposed to be one of this year’s premier quarterback duels. Coming off of being the biggest story of the NFL offseason, Aaron Rodgers was set to make his much-anticipated Jets debut at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, going up against Josh Allen and the defending AFC East champion Buffalo Bills.
That narrative lasted for all of 11 plays, before the unthinkable happened. After getting sacked on just his fourth snap of the game, Rodgers tried to return to the huddle but instead dropped to a seated position on the field. He was then helped off the field by the Jets’ medical staff, before being carted back to the locker room.
It turns out, that’s the last we would see of Rodgers this year. Tests later revealed the 39-year-old tore his Achilles, not only ending his season but putting his career in jeopardy.
Shortly after the injury, Green Bay Packers offensive tackle David Bakhtiari took to Twitter/X to share his frustration about the injury, and specifically how a new(ish) trend in the league may have contributed to it.
“Congrats @nfl (sic). How many more players have to get hurt on ARTIFICIAL TURF??! You care more about soccer players than us.” Bakhtiari posted.” You plan to remove all artificial turf for the World Cup coming up. So clearly it’s feasible. I’m sick of this. Do better!”
(Bakhtiari’s reference to the World Cup is alluding to a number of stadiums that have been designated host sites – including Gillette Stadium – plan to have natural grass in place temporarily to comply with FIFA regulations.)
Bakhtiari followed that post with a series of posts about research done regarding the rate of injuries on grass versus turf fields. The numbers show the rate for turf injuries regularly surpassing that on grass fields.
That was followed by a statement on Wednesday from the NFLPA’s new executive director, Lloyd Howell. Howell said all NFL stadiums moving to natural grass is “is the easiest decision the NFL can make.”
Patriots defensive lineman Deatrich Wise, who is one of the team’s NFLPA reps, agrees with Howell’s assessment. “I would really like it if the league switched to all the grass. It would be nice,” Wise told 98.5 on Wednesday. “It’d be better on everybody’s knees, hips, back, ankles and everything else.”
Wise also added another concern that comes with turf – the black pellets that are included to reduce friction. “I found out that the black turf is made from tires, and it’s very carcinogenic,” he pointed out. “That’s not good.”
This isn’t the first time the NFLPA has been vocal about the difference between grass and turf. Back in April, NFLPA president JC Tretter penned a piece on the NFLPA website calling on all NFL teams to “proactively change all field surfaces to natural grass,” adding that as a whole “the NFLPA is advocating for teams to convert artificial practice and game fields to natural grass fields.”
Tretter also highlighted why grass is better for the modern game where players are bigger, faster, and stronger. “Grass will eventually give, which often releases the cleat prior to reaching an injurious load,” he noted. “On synthetic surfaces, there is less give, meaning our feet, ankles and knees absorb the force, which makes injury more likely to follow.”
It’s hardly just Tretter and Bakhtiari that feel this way. According to a 2010 NFLPA survey, 90 percent of players believe playing on turf “will shorten their careers.”
There are numbers backing this up as well. According to Tretter, “players have a 28% higher rate of non-contact lower extremity injuries when playing on artificial turf. Of those 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.” In 2021, 13 of the league’s 16 most injured teams (in terms of games lost to injury) played their home games on artificial playing surfaces (source).
Rodgers himself was quoted in a piece by Forbes last December on the subject of the NFL using grass instead of artificial turf. “I do think it’s time to go all grass [fields] throughout the league,” Rodgers said at the time, before adding he doesn’t expect the league to make that change. “I don’t have a lot of confidence when it comes to the league making that decision without some sort of big vote and gripes from certain owners who don’t want to spend the money,” he continued. “This would be putting your money where your mouth is if player safety is important.” According to that Forbes piece, converting all current turf surfaces to grass would cost each team that would need to do so $850,000.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell shared his thoughts on grass compared to turf on ESPN’s First Take on Wednesday. “You have other players who like playing on the turf field, because it’s faster. So you’ve got mixed opinions. What we want to go on is science, we want to go on what’s the best from an injury standpoint,” he said. “That’s how we make decisions, not because I see an injury that I don’t like. Ultimately, I want our experts to come back and give it to us.”
In 2023, more than half of the teams in the league – 17 of 32 – play on turf. That’s slightly up from 14 teams 10 years ago, although notably true domed stadiums – the original drivers behind artificial turf – are much less prevalent now than they were in the past. In fact, indoor teams such as the Cardinals and Raiders have figured out ways to have natural grass fields in full-time indoor stadiums.Still, turf has become more popular around the league because it is more cost-effective. It’s more sustainable making maintenance costs lower, especially for teams in the northern part of the country that have to deal with inclement weather during the season. Turf also gives stadiums more flexibility to host non-football events, given less time is needed to prepare the surface after each one.
With there being so many focused battles between the NFL and NFLPA such as revenue sharing, player wellness/concussions, schedule changes, and more, the Turf Versus Grass debate hasn’t made its way to the forefront. Could a high-profile injury – such as the one that happened to Rodgers on Monday night – change that? It wouldn’t be surprising to hear more about this throughout the season.