Skip to main content
Original Issue


On AstroTurf, the wetter the slipperier. On Poly-Turf, the drier the slipperier. On Tartan Turf, don't throw cigarette butts. But the burning question is injuries

To bring you up to date, you will recall that in previous installments man had been playing football on grass, but he tore the grass up, and when it rained there was mud, and the numbers on his jersey were covered with it, and so was the ball, and the bands played on. They also marched on the mud, making it muddier. And so man invented AstroTurf, Tartan Turf and Poly-Turf. And when it rained there was no mud. A giant squeegee, pulled by a tractor, parted the water from the AstroTurf in Lincoln, Neb., and the field was dry. In Miami they pulled the drainage plugs under the Poly-Turf and—whoosh!—the field was dry. The numbers could be seen. So could the civic officials and stadium owners rushing to their friendly neighborhood synthetic turf dealer.

Ersatz grass was installed across the width and breadth of this great country of ours until 11 of the 26 fields where pro football teams play were carpeted. Colleges eagerly sought the mod sod and before long 72 playing fields were as phony as brick wallpaper. In Pittsburgh they found they could cram in four softball games, four soccer games or three touch football games at the same time, and the groundkeeper said he loved not having to spread manure. The field was in use 12 hours a day and it was be-you-ti-ful.

But. On a clear day in Candlestick Park, 49er fans have difficulty sorting out man, ball and AstroTurf because of the glare and halation from the blades of nylon grass. In Tennessee the carpet (Tartan Turf) turned black. Minnesota Mining, the manufacturer, sent around a man with some "solution" but eventually had to replace the surface. In Miami the Orange Bowl field (Poly-Turf) turned blue.

The blades of Poly-Turf (from polypropylene, as opposed to the nylon base of Tartan Turf and AstroTurf) adopted an angle of repose roughly 15° from flat-out, and no amount of coaxing, combing and vacuuming was able to get its full attention. The seams began to split. There appeared to be ripples. When the sun beat down the surface became glassy, and running with the grain was slippery business on a hot, dry Sunday afternoon. Don Shula, the Dolphin coach, looked at films of his team's games with the Jets and Patriots and added up 114 pratfalls. American Biltrite's representative studied the situation and blamed the whole thing on air pollution. The city of Miami took a closer look at its five-year guarantee.

The players started screaming. Softly at first. "It doesn't feel right," said a Detroit Lion. "Grass smells better," said a Philadelphia Eagle. Coaches could be heard moaning. Shug Jordan of Auburn said it was like playing on a Brillo pad at Georgia Tech.

Players and coaches together complained—louder now—of the heat. Temperatures were 30° higher on synthetic surfaces. A New York Jet said he was "well done, cooked from the bottom up" after the game in Miami where the Poly-Turf registered over 120° at 2 p.m. In San Francisco Kermit Alexander of the Rams wrapped his feet in tinfoil "to play in the oven."

Defensive Tackle Dave Long of the New Orleans Saints led a concert of complaints about the surface in the Astrodome, Monsanto's 'original' installation and showcase. He said it was as hard as linoleum and players tripped over the lumps. Some of the lumps were the zippers Judge Roy Hofheinz ordered to make the field portable. Long said the Astrodome AstroTurf was the worst he'd seen. There were other candidates. Gale Sayers blamed the AstroTurf at Soldier Field for his delayed comeback from off-season knee surgery. When he finally played three weeks ago, he twisted his ankle on the first series of downs. "This stuff," said Sayers bitterly, "will shorten careers."

Where once the manufacturers had sold buyers on the "safety factor," either by outright advertising or laying it on heavy in the sales pitch, they shut up. Independent studies indicated that injuries went up, not down, on artificial turf. Dr. Joseph S. Torg, a Philadelphia orthopedic surgeon and team physician for Temple, "strongly recommended" a moratorium on the installation of artificial turf. Dr. William Smith, Pitt's former team physician and orthopedic surgeon, spoke of a "50-to-60%" increase in injuries and blamed improper shoes. Dr. James Garrick of the University of Washington got national attention with his dire findings.

Everybody had a story to tell but Tommy Prothro, the Ram coach, had a helmet to show. It was one worn by Roman Gabriel in a game at Candlestick Park. The helmet had a smudge near the crown. The smudge was made up of abrasion scars, as if the helmet had been dragged on concrete. Game films indicated that Gabriel's head had whiplashed onto the AstroTurf and spoiled his good vibrations. Gabriel, who had a concussion, had to leave the game. "AstroTurf is like putting a throw rug over a driveway," said Prothro. In a college game at Wisconsin, played atop Tartan Turf, an LSU player took an especially hard fall. On the bus ride to the airport he was asked what he thought about the new playing surface. "I'm sorry," he replied blankly. "I don't remember a thing."

By now there was a cacophony of complaints. Dick Gordon of the Bears said you couldn't run normally on artificial turf because "you couldn't stop quick enough." A Los Angeles Ram compared it with "running dainty-footed downhill on a wet pavement." Others complained of too much traction. Archie Manning recalled that he had broken his left arm last year at Mississippi when he reached out to brake himself and his hand stuck to the AstroTurf.

The Detroit Lions said they hated artificial grass. "Every time we play on it we seem to get somebody hurt," said Coach Joe Schmidt. Fullback Steve Owens was lost for much of last year when he separated a shoulder in Cincinnati. "The only time I was ever hurt in college was at the Astrodome," said Owens. He said the big reason he had been drafted was his durability. "I can't block, I can't catch a pass and I'm slow," he said, reciting his scouting report, "and now I'm not even durable."

Meanwhile, the National Football League Players Association withdrew its endorsement of Poly-Turf, which, in addition to the Orange Bowl, covers the fields in New Orleans and at the new stadium in Foxboro, Mass. The NFLPA had said it was better. They had also liked it because the NFLPA collected 5¢ for every square foot installed.

Trips to the medicine cabinet and operating table were not the only manifestations of an expanding concern, however. Bruce Gossett, the San Francisco placekicker, was seen monkeying around with his kicking cleats, shaving and filing, because he said the ball wasn't sitting high enough (not enough support) on the artificial grass and he had to "get lower" to make proper impact. Bear Bryant, although a booster of his own AstroTurf, couldn't find a place to throw his cigarette butts when he went to Knoxville (Tartan Turf actually looks like a carpet, having crimped round fibers instead of long, flat blades, and Bryant was raised not to throw cigarette butts on a carpet). Bubble gum has to be painstakingly scraped off the fields. Mustard stains, a side effect of hot-dog wrappers fluttering down from the stands, prove almost impossible to remove. Bob Devaney of Nebraska refused to allow his school's star baton twirler to perform without a special drop cloth (her act includes three flaming batons).

An artificial grass backlash developed. Bob Short, the owner of the Senators, said he would not have artificial turf in his team's new home in Dallas. "If you can't grow grass in Texas, of all places...." he said. In Kansas City a crusade led by a draftsman named E. L. Ruble Jr. got under way to prevent the Tartaning of the new Truman Sports Complex. Ruble called it a "grass roots" campaign and if his efforts appeared quixotic his voice was soulful as he spoke of the sterility of artificial surfaces and the beauty of a memory he had of Chief Defensive End Jerry Mays walking off the field covered with mud. The Rudy-Patrick Company, which sells grass seed out of Kansas City, pitched in financially for Ruble's campaign, which included passing out bumper stickers at Chiefs games reading LET GEORGE DO IT.

George is Municipal Stadium ground-keeper George Toma, who is so highly regarded that other stadiums call him for consultations. His real grass is so gorgeous people think it's phony. In his heart, he said, he was for natural grass, but after traveling around the country he had concluded that the substitute for the high-priced spread was inevitable. (The Stanford Research Institute estimates that $1.2 billion will be spent on synthetic surfaces over the next 10 years.) "I've decided," said Toma, "that nobody cares."

Toma was wrong, somebody up there on Capitol Hill does care, and last week in Room 2123 of the Rayburn House Office Building a House subcommittee investigating product safety watched color slides of grotesquely blistered palms and burned elbows; linear abrasions; second-degree burns of arms, legs and hips; and purple toenails resulting from "feet trying to slide through the shoe" on high-traction synthetic turf. The slides were made at the University of Washington in Seattle, said the director of the show, Dr. Garrick himself.

Puffing on a corncob pipe, Dr. Garrick said the study he had conducted on a municipal field in Seattle indicated that half again as many time-loss injuries occurred on the AstroTurf there as on grass. Dr. Garrick did not pretend that his study was definitive, but he asked that it lead to a more detailed survey.

The subcommittee, headed by Congressman John E. Moss of California, was studying product-safety regulations as a whole. It seized on the synthetic turf issue because of its instant-attention potential. "It's football players. It's sex appeal," said one Congressman. Sure enough, the glare in Room 2123 was not from samples of artificial turf, but from TV lights.

Ed Garvey, NFLPA executive director, brought in three players (John Wilbur, Roy Jefferson and Gus Hollomon) to speak against synthetic fields. Last Tuesday morning their testimony appeared in The Washington Post, ironically enough along side two other items. One was an account of the Monday night Green Bay-Detroit game, played in rain and on mud and, presumably, somewhere down there, a few blades of grass. The last futile pass of that game—a 14-14 tie—left the slime-slick hand of Detroit's Greg Landry and fluttered as though it had been hit by a double load into the arms of a Packer identified by Frank Gifford as Ray Nitschke. He could have said it was Ray Milland and no one would have been the wiser.

In an adjacent column was a story about George Allen, the Redskin coach, who was raging about the condition of Washington's RFK Field. How slippery, how heavy, how rundown. How it could cost the Redskins the Eastern Division championship. RFK Field is real grass.

Garvey said he had appealed to the owners to cooperate in a study of injuries on artificial surfaces. The first 10 replies from NFL clubs stated, in suspiciously similar language, "Thank you for your concern. We are forwarding your request to the NFL Player Relations Association." The NFLPRA, not to be confused with the NFLPA, is a committee of owners headed by the Giants' Wellington Mara, which was set up to be the collective bargaining agent for the owners. What, Garvey wondered, did collective bargaining have to do with injuries? Mara voiced concern, more over Garvey's intrusiveness than over injuries, and said he would like to meet with various player reps to discuss the whole matter. The NFLPA thereupon asked for a halt to the installation of synthetic fields until the safety question has been settled and threatened to get a court injunction, citing a collective bargaining clause in its contract concerning a change in working conditions, if any club dared put in a phony field.

A man from Monsanto said he had it all figured out. What was happening was that the turf people had been caught in the middle of a labor-management fight. He had a point. The owners know that they will have to negotiate increased pension benefits when the present contract expires, so they don't want to aid the players' cause by joining in the outcry over injuries.

What really worried the man from Monsanto, however, was the prospect that manufacturers will be swamped with lawsuits. "Mothers," he said gloomily, "out to collect on injured sons."

The rebuttal on the final day of the hearing by the three turf manufacturers was an anticlimax, except that one of the principals had a beautiful head of synthetic hair that captured the flavor if not the spirit of the occasion. Monsanto showed, in 45 handsomely bound pages, that injuries were down on AstroTurf, although the company did not advertise the fact anymore because it realized that that kind of statistical data is "considered self-serving." As for the field in Seattle where Dr. Garrick made his study, Monsanto characterized it as an "older generation" model (the latest is No. 4) that could stand a new pad. (Washington does not want to pay for a new pad; it has a year to run on a five-year guarantee.)

The man from Minnesota Mining offered 13 pages on Tartan Turf. He freely admitted that he could not really answer the question "Are there more injuries on artificial turf?" But what, he asked in turn, is meant by "natural grass"? Is it "Kentucky blue grass...which stands straight up and a player's cleats slide on it," or is it "Bermuda, low and interlaced, and cleats can lock within its tufting?"

The president of American Biltrite, Morton Broffman, kept his prepared statement on Poly-Turf to himself. There were no copies. He had it written in ink, in a small hand, and during most of his testimony only Congressman Moss and an aide were on hand.

The most curious testimony was that of Dr. Donald Cooper of Oklahoma State. On the one hand, Dr. Cooper seemed the most knowledgeable of all on the synthetic turf phenomenon. He spoke, for example, on the "cultural shock" of players running on a strange surface (comparable to a man trying on ice skates for the first time), and on the slide variance of "natural" fields and the "psychological implications" of injuries. Do you injure more readily when you lose? Yes, probably.

But through it all, Dr. Cooper kept trying to cop everybody out, saying that a committee investigating the causes of football injuries in relation to the field of play was venturing into "dangerous country" and risked opening a "Pandora's box." He said turf was one of the "lesser" contributors to injury. He indicated that the committee ought to pack up and go home and, in fact, said so. Naturally, the committee interrupted Dr. Cooper whenever it could.

Nonetheless, as best as can be determined, there are now three major investigations under way: Dr. Garrick's (for the NFLPA); one that Don Weiss, the NFL's director of public relations, says the league is conducting that seems to be on injuries as a whole, since it is "all-encompassing" and, at any rate, will take "some time before [it] can be definitive"; and a 44-college survey by the NCAA made over the 1969-70 seasons, with results to be released in January. If it is solutions they want, there are already a number flying around. Beige-colored fields to cut down on heat and discoloration. Newly designed shoes. (Hockey players do not skate in basketball shoes.) Pre-flooded fields. Helmets padded on the outside. Vitamin E.

Nevertheless, certain contradictions would appear to be endemic, or perhaps generic, as Dr. Cooper darkly suggested. On AstroTurf, for example, the wetter the slipperier; on Poly-Turf, the hotter-drier the slipperier, and the wetter the better. And if more injuries occur on artificial turf because players "run faster on it, and therefore hit harder," does that mean coaches who have been looking for faster, harder-hitting players all these years will now begin to recruit slower, softer hitters? As for the traction, says a Monsanto rep, you ask a coach how much and he says, "As much as I can get," you ask a team doctor how much and he says, "As little as I can get away with."

For every set of statistics that show injuries up, there is another that shows them down. On the same Astrodome field on which the University of Houston has had only one operative knee or ankle injury in 5½ years, the Houston Oilers had a number in 1970 alone. For every football player who says he does not like artificial turf, there is a Virgil Carter who does. Carter, the Cincinnati quarterback, says the ball does not take as much of a beating on it. And for every athlete who does not want to play on something horses can't eat (Richie Allen, most notably), there is an athletic director (Jim Barratt of Oregon State) who thinks grass should not be used for anything except horse feed.

Most coaches who complain about it, says Texas' Darrell Royal, are the ones who don't have it. Texas has it. Texas loves it. Texas doesn't play a game off it until late 1972. Paul Brown of Cincinnati says it was time to consider the fact that municipally owned stadiums are also built with economics in mind (greater land use, easier maintenance) and "the surface is their business, not ours." Hank Stram of Kansas City likes it. "Players would get hurt even if we played on marshmallows," he says.

One thing that can be said for sure about Poly-Turf is that it's marshmallowy. A Miami TV station believed the claim that you could drop an egg 10 feet to the surface of the Orange Bowl without breaking it. A camera crew and a ladder were rounded up and pictures taken of eggs being dropped. Only when a crane took the demonstrator up 25 feet did an egg splatter.

The Miami-Poly-Turf situation is a 14-month marriage that is presently on the rocks. Miami has stopped payments (after No. 12 of 48 in the payment book) until American Biltrite makes good the wedding vows. How the two ever got together in the first place was confounding, Miami being green year round, but the truth was that the Orange Bowl was having trouble keeping its grass. Too much traffic and too little foresight. The story going around is that when a superintendent who was not a Florida native was hired a few years ago, one of the first things he did before learning the vagaries of Miami grass care was to rip it all up and put in a sprinkler system. The new grass did not take root.

A committee of tenants (including the Dolphins) called together by the mayor demanded a shotgun wedding: synthetic turf or else. City Manager Melvin Reese asked for a year to study the various synthetics. One of the fields where the investigating team studied Poly-Turf was in Wichita, Kans., under eight inches of snow. The snow was scraped off the field so the team could see how beautifully Poly-Turf holds up. Presumably, if there is ever eight inches of snow in Miami, the Poly-Turf will hold up.

Poly-Turf was the committee's choice because it was springier and because it was cheaper (at $153,000, it was less than half as much as either Tartan Turf or AstroTurf). At a cocktail party following the wedding, a beaming American Biltrite executive told Miami Herald sportswriter Luther Evans that from now on "this [the Orange Bowl] is our showcase. We'll put in a new field every year if we have to."

They may have to. The Miami air, chock full of all that ultraviolet and ozone, apparently is too much for Poly-Turf. Miami maintenance crews have faithfully followed the company instruction booklets, said Director of Public Property Andrew Crouch. When unusual problems arose, they called Boston. They scrubbed with the proper solvent, vacuumed in the right direction, rotated every 1,000 miles. When they decorated midfield for January's Super Bowl, they asked Boston for the proper paint, and then the proper paint remover. They applied the remover. It didn't remove. They reapplied it three times. In June the paint was gone.

By September it was evident that the sun was killing the phony grass. It had turned blue. It was on its side. When the carnival of slips began with the Jet-Dolphin game, Reese called for an official investigation. American Biltrite sent a man named Love to direct a refurbishing program that included a scrubbing apparatus composed of 16 eight-inch nylon brushes nailed to a frame and pulled behind a small tractor, like a harrow. The workers called it The Love Machine.

Players from the University of Miami and local high schools, who play at night, did not slip. It was clearly a heat-of-the-day problem. After the slipshod game against the Patriots, the Poly-Turf crews went to work in renewed earnest, sometimes 25 at a time, scrubbing, rubbing, vacuuming, raking, brushing and steam-cleaning. Last week the field seemed to be making a comeback. One thing that was coming back was the Super Bowl decoration at midfield. And now the Super Bowl is in New Orleans.

In last Sunday's game with Buffalo, there wasn't a single slip, a state of affairs attributable to a heavy watering down of the field and improved footgear. Nonetheless, Reese has adopted a wait-and-see attitude. If Don Shula and the rest still say it's an ice rink, he will insist on "some very drastic moves." He declined to say what those moves would be. The manufacturers say they have given "no thought" to replacing the field, but Reese, who drove the hard bargain in the first place, has the paper in hand to make them.

One "drastic move" often suggested is that the synthetic field be plowed under and that grass be planted. That, of course, would be too drastic.