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Original Issue

Just An Awful Toll

Artificial turf is murder on football players; it causes more breaks, bruises, tears and strains than sod does

There are reasons why football is played on grass instead of on a terrazzo floor or on I-95, and most of them are good ones. They are pretty much the same reasons football should not be played on artificial surfaces, those scouring pads over asphalt whose plastic hides are now spread across more than 200 of the football fields of America. But don't bother asking the administrators of football to list the reasons for you.

The administrators and entrepreneurs of football have been so busy telling you that black is white and that black and blue and open-wound pink are the colors football players are supposed to be that they just haven't had time to tell you how bad the stuff really is. Some of them don't even know. Most of them apparently don't want to know. Certainly what they don't know won't hurt them.

Those poor young fools whom it does hurt can tell, all right, but nobody seems to listen. Not even Congress, which heard their grievances on three separate occasions—in 1972, 1977 and 1978—nodded politely and did nothing. Most of the poor older fools who coach the game can tell you, too, and some try to do so, but they don't try hard enough because theirs is often a divided loyalty and nobody listens to them, either.

So we will tell you for them.

Above all the testimony that nobody pays any attention to, above all the grim statistics that trace the toll of ruptured ligaments and tortured flesh, these facts stand out:

1) Artificial turf does not have to be mowed, watered or fertilized. It looks as good in December as it does in August and shows up well on television. When it rains, the players' numbers are still legible. It is wonderful for the economics of sport in that it keeps the gates of commerce open year-round, weather or not. Therefore, the administrators of football continue to order more grass ripped up and more carpet laid down. 2) Artificial turf is murder on football players. In laying down their carpets, sports administrators ignore the ongoing cries of "Enough!" from the young men who suffer on them, and they are undeterred by the fact that, after all these years, there is still no comprehensive study to show that artificial turf is a safe alternative. To the contrary, there is every reason to believe that it is not.

In 1974, the Stanford Research Institute International completed a six-year study of injuries for the National Football League. SRI is a formidable group, numbering 3,000 employees, and its report to the NFL was damning. It concluded that the rules and equipment of the game needed to be brought in line with a hard reality: Bigger, stronger and faster players had achieved an astonishing capacity to hurt one another and were doing so at a record pace. Nowhere was this more evident than on artificial turf.

The study found that in 17 out of 17 categories, natural grass was safer to play on than the artificial surfaces then being produced for football. Safer for the head, the face, the teeth, the neck, the shoulders, the arms, the elbows, the wrists, the hands, the fingers, the thorax, the feet, the toes, the back, the hips, the ankles. Despite some claims that turf would reduce the incidence of knee injuries, the bane of football, SRI found that more knees were injured on it.

SRI made a follow-up survey of 1,002 NFL players in 1978 for the NFL Management Council and the Players Association, and got an overwhelming negative on synthetic turf: 83% preferred grass. Those players who favored turf were usually the ones who could afford to worry more about their footing than their skins: e.g., placekickers and punters. Moreover, the '78 survey showed that the seven stadium fields the players preferred to play on were all grass, with Miami's Orange Bowl heading the list. The bottom 10 were all plastic-covered, with the Houston Astrodome leading that list.

SRI offered an ominous comment on the study: "As in prior years...a significantly greater number of major and minor game injuries were sustained when playing on all three types of synthetic surfaces [Poly-Turf, Tartan Turf and AstroTurf]." Joe Grippo, an executive director of SRI, said in 1978, and repeats now, that his group's conclusion was that "synthetic surfaces could not be justified, not on an injury-prevention basis, not on a relative-cost basis." The alleged economic advantages are a poor tradeoff for the human misery that synthetic surfaces are causing.

So, did the NFL demand that the rugs be rolled up in the stadiums in which its games were played? It did not. NFL cities have millions of dollars invested in artificial turf. The SRI report was received as if it were science fiction. When that first study was made in 1974, there were 13 turfed stadiums in the NFL. Today, there are 16.

According to Grippo, the '74 report cost the NFL only "around $40,000"—about the price of the hors d'oeuvres for its Super Bowl party. But SRI was not commissioned to make any more studies. Thus was established a provocative working syllogism:

A) You make a study and find that artificial turf is dangerous to the health of your athletes.

B) You don't change the turf, and turf-related injuries continue, even advance.

C) Therefore: The thing to do is to not make any more studies.

Eventually, the NFL found amazing new meaning in the one study it did conduct. In a typical recent statement, Minnesota general manager Mike Lynn echoed the party line when he said, "The SRI study found artificial turf doesn't increase injuries."

"Incredible," says Grippo.

(Lynn, of course, has reason to wish black into white. The Vikings play on the infamous Metrodome SuperTurf, which some players call "fuzzy concrete" and which one coach has compared to a "cheap house rug.")

To be sure, the history of injury analysis in football—high school to pro—has always seemed more hysterical than historical. Most analyses have been put together by a few highly motivated people with limited resources. The results are always suspect. But in 1980 the NFL found a surveyor whose tune it could dance to: the National Athletic Injury/ Illness Reporting System, or NAIRS.

NAIRS was—it doesn't exist any longer except to the NFL—a data-gathering-and-deciphering unit based at Penn State University and held together by a shoestring. Before the NFL bought in, NAIRS had been pretty much discounted by the colleges and high schools it served as being a "good idea" but too complicated and too erratic in its fact-finding processes. "Teenage volunteers were submitting the information," says one critic. "I wouldn't buy it," says Carl Blyth of North Carolina, a respected critic-analyst of the perils in college athletics.

"We were hopeful that it was a noble effort," says coach Joe Paterno. But Paterno found "you could never get a straight answer" from NAIRS. "They just didn't really know." He was grateful that no one tried to pressure him into installing turf at Beaver Stadium. "Grass, I'm convinced, is safer," he says.

In a departure from its own vague, contradictory report of 1975-77, which suggested a "higher overall rate of injury [on] artificial turf," NAIRS said in 1983 that, while more injuries occurred on artificial turf, when all minor time-loss categories were included, there was no statistical difference between surfaces when major injuries such as severely damaged knees and ankles were studied.

"Minor" injuries, in the doublespeak of such surveyors, include such items as sprains, strains, contusions and abrasions—injuries a dedicated player might take into a game. "Turf toe," by this definition, is a minor injury. It is a painful hyperextension of the big toe that occurs almost exclusively on artificial turf, and it doesn't seem minor to players who miss games because of it. And NAIRS coordinator John Powell admits that significant knee injuries are slightly more common on turf than on grass.

Undersubscribed, NAIRS went out of business last year, but Powell continues to serve the NFL as a one-man, part-time injury analyst. An athletic trainer for 20 years, but never a head trainer in football, he is now an associate professor of phys ed at San Diego State. He says he has never had the funding to dispense injury data on a regular basis.

Powell was asked if his findings showed turf to be no more dangerous than grass. He said, "It depends on what you call dangerous. There are many definitions." How about anything that gets a player hurt? "Are you talking about time-loss from games?" Just anything that gets a player hurt, injured, damaged in one way or another. "Well, in that case, you'd have to say that turf is more dangerous, but there are many variables."

It is, of course, always easy to find the NFL culpable for its injury problems. The league, after all, is a profit-oriented enterprise to which little credit for player empathy has ever been given or deserved. Such old critics of turf as Alan Page and Larry Csonka see the cynicism at work. "It's cheaper for the NFL to get new players than rip out the turf," says ex-Viking Page. "Players," says ex-Dolphin fullback Csonka, have "always been the easiest thing to replace."

This is a view that the NFL Players Association has thrice taken to Congress in an attempt to get a moratorium on the installation of artificial turf, the argument being that it is a consumer product that has not been proved safe. Lately, the NFLPA has been doing its own injury analysis, compiled from the weekly injury reports. The association found, not surprisingly, that injuries were up nearly 20% in 1984 as compared with '83, and that in "each area of this data studied—injury duration, playing position, injury type, and injury severity—synthetic surfaces were more dangerous than natural surfaces."

The NFLPA found that the average turf injury took longer to heal, that the number of players placed on injured reserve increased by a third and that the number of missed games doubled when the injuries occurred on turf.

The NFL's failings at preventive medicine are manifest, but what about the colleges? Have they done any better? Alas, no. Theirs is an even greater culpability. The first artificial surface laid on a college field was in 1968. After 17 years of irresponsible leadership, there are 81 turfed football fields in Division I alone—55 in I-A (five more than grass fields) and 26 in I-AA. Ersatz grass covers the college game like a mustard plaster. Entire conferences have been sealed up, even in places where they cannot use snow and slush as an excuse. All nine Southwest Conference schools have carpets. Once the field at Missouri is laid in Omniturf this fall, the Big Eight Conference will be totally turfed.

Some schools, to be sure, have seen the light. Last year South Carolina plowed up its AstroTurf and went back to grass. Rice is planning to do the same with its AstroTurf. Mississippi has gone back to grass, and the Southeastern Conference is now down to only four of 10 teams with turf. But all five "northern" teams in the Pacific-10 play on turf, and when Penn State engages its biggest Eastern rivals—West Virginia, Pitt, Boston College, et al.—away from home, it plays on synthetic turf. And so on, ad nauseam.

You would think, therefore, that the colleges must know something that goes against the sporadic but nevertheless alarming flow of evidence about football injuries on artificial turf. The best independent studies on the subject—by Dr. James Garrick and Dr. Harry H. Kretzler Jr., in Seattle; and by Blyth and Frederick Mueller in North Carolina—found, as early as 1971, that the rate of football injuries on turf was as much as 50% higher than that on grass.

Well, take heed, brethren. Three years ago, the NCAA added a research coordinator, Eric Zemper, to its staff in Mission, Kans., and although football injuries represented only "about 10 percent" of his lab time, Zemper worked up figures on three years of data gleaned from "about 50" schools. The result is a computerized study covering 750,000 "athlete exposures" and 5,500 reported injuries.

And what do they show? That the rate of injury on artificial turf is "approximately 50 percent higher" than on natural grass. "A significant difference," says Zemper. For a time at midseason in 1984, college players were getting hurt on turf almost twice as often as on grass. Over the full three years, Zemper found "a consistent pattern of higher injury rates on artificial surfaces, whether looking at total injuries, games vs. practices, minor vs. major or just knee injuries."

Zemper, who has since left the NCAA, says he was not amazed that NCAA schools were still laying carpet. "I'm not amazed by anything," he says. "I was concerned, but I couldn't speak for the NCAA. I couldn't do anything but give them the information. I did so on request. I sent the findings to one school when it was considering putting in turf. They put it in anyway."

The first and most sacred responsibility of the custodians of any sport is to make it as safe as possible for its participants. Early enough the football powers were warned: There was an injury problem that could be linked to artificial turf. The evidence cried out for a full review. Instead, it got a cocked eyebrow. More than a decade later, a respected coach like LaVell Edwards of national champion Brigham Young can say he "doesn't like [turf], but I haven't seen a survey." A Joe Paterno has to "guess" that turf is as bad as he thinks it is. Even Davey Nelson of the NCAA rules committee maintains, "We have nothing conclusive."

Here, for the record, is what the administrators of football, both college and pro, have been deaf to for the last 15 years. It is the unremitting background music of American football.

Among the early voices in the wilderness was Larry Csonka's. An acknowledged he-man among men, seemingly impervious to pain and the sight of his own blood, Csonka was nonetheless adamant in his condemnation of artificial surfaces. With his "turf toes" traumatized and one tree trunk of a knee forever damaged in 1976, when, it was "glued" to the turf at Giants Stadium and struck from the side (his ligaments were too tough to tear so they ripped fragments of bone away when they snapped loose), Csonka now observes, "Technology has advanced to the stage where it is capable of finishing every player in the league years before his time."

Because of the exceptional musculature of his legs, Csonka is convinced that he would never have had a knee injury had it not been for artificial turf. He now lives with a chronically sore neck, left knee and elbows, and feet so tender he has difficulty wearing leather shoes. One toe had to be operated on. "My worst enemy was that damned turf," he says.

"I hate the stuff," says Raider linebacker Matt Millen, who tore up his foot in 1983 when it was caught between seams at the Kingdome in Seattle.

"I detest it," says N.C. State coach Tom Reed.

"I don't want to speak against turf because I understand why you have to have it," says the Bears' Mike Ditka, reciting the coach's dilemma. "[But] I don't think there's anything like lining up and playing on natural grass."

"The guy who invented it should be made to sleep on it," says Houston Oilers defensive coordinator Jerry Glanville. When he was with Detroit, Glanville watched quarterbacks Bill Munson and Greg Landry go down in the Astrodome tearing up their knees. "They carted Landry off in a truck," says Glanville.

Cincinnati linebacker Reggie Williams first played on the turf in high school 12 years ago. "I realize now we were just guinea pigs," he says. In 1979 he suffered a serious knee injury "just backpedaling" on AstroTurf.

Atlanta Falcon equipment manager Whitey Zimmerman says, "Artificial turf is 'too.' " Too what? "Too everything. When it's dry, it's too dry. When it's wet, it's too wet. When it's cold, it's too cold. When it's hot, it's too hot."

"It is the biggest hoax in the history of sport," says Blyth of North Carolina.

With endorsements like that, one wonders how football could have been so blind.

Blinded might be the better word—blinded by relentless hype. To be sure, artificial turf is smoother, and lo, when it rains, the water usually does run off. But it is also harder, so hard that coach George Allen used to get tired "just standing on it." And what good is harder when clavicles fracture on routine falls and shoulders separate on routine impact?

The Redskins' Rich Milot fractured his elbow against the Patriots at New England just by falling. Against the Eagles in Philadelphia, tackle George Starke had his arm under him when he landed on the turf; he fractured two bones in his hand. "On grass, it wouldn't have been broken," says trainer Bubba Tyer.

Csonka landed with the ball under him once, "then got hit by two or three guys, and the ball was compressed into my body. I had football from chin to belly. It's a wonder the ball didn't explode. When I gave it to the referee, the skin was all twisted around. They had to throw it out of the game."

One victim of turf hardness was Kent Waldrep, the former TCU player who flipped while playing at Alabama in 1974, landed on his head and was paralyzed from the neck down. Waldrep sued American Biltrite, the manufacturer of Poly-Turf, and the contractors who had put the turf down. Last year the suit was settled out of court. Waldrep says players should be worried that "safety is not the number one priority" in football.

A question to ask an advocate of artificial turf is this: If it doesn't matter, if an unyielding surface is "not as dangerous" as its critics say, why won't coaches let their players practice on it?

Bill Walsh won't let his Super Bowl champion 49ers practice on turf. The Atlanta Falcons don't practice on it. University of Houston coach Bill Yeoman limits time to 45 minutes a week. Oilers trainer Jerry Meins is "glad we have grass to practice on." When Georgia goes on its turfed practice area "even for one day," says trainer Warren Morris, there is a residual effect on aches and pains that increases his work load: "I get old injury complaints. Old ankles, old hamstrings."

Howard Schnellenberger has ordered two new grass practice fields for the University of Louisville, although his team will play its home games on the turf of Cardinal Stadium. The Chicago Bears play on the AstroTurf of Soldier Field on Sunday, but practice during the week on the grass of Lake Forest College. West Virginia plays on plastic, but coach Don Nehlen says his new grass practice field is "the best thing that's happened since I've been here." Arizona coach Larry Smith remembers when he was at Tulane practicing and playing for two years on the turf in the Superdome: "The third year, we changed to regular grass for practice and cut our injuries by 60 percent."

All right, say the friends of phony grass, we concede that artificial turf is harder. With several inches of asphalt laid like a launch pad beneath the one-inch plastic, it has to be. It is the price you pay for better traction, rain or shine.

Yes, reply the lame and the halt, but what good is better traction when a ligament tears in the act of cutting, or a shoulder comes apart in the act of falling down? When the surface won't give, something else will. Several years ago the Rams' Roman Gabriel wound up with a concussion when his helmet hit the unyielding carpet. And the Colts' Bert Jones partially separated his shoulder when his pads "grabbed" the surface as he was tackled.

The "noncontact" injury has always been a frustrating fact of football and a persistent reminder of the fragility of the knee. But this kind of injury has taken on a new ugliness because of turf traction. An entire league could be formed with victims who were hurt severely without being touched by anything but the rug.

Here are the grim examples:

•The University of Arkansas recruits a star quarterback from Birmingham named Richard Burg in 1977. On his first day at practice as a freshman, Burg takes a snap and goes down the line, plants his foot in the AstroTurf to fake a pitch and collapses with two ligament tears and a torn cartilage. No one is within 10 feet of him. Burg never plays a down for the Razorbacks.

•Green Bay signs a "franchise" running back named Eddie Lee Ivery in 1979. In his first game as a Packer, at Soldier Field, Ivery breaks through the line on a draw play, cuts outside, plants his foot to turn upfield, and suddenly falls to the turf, fumbling the ball and clutching his knee in pain. He has to have surgery for a torn anterior cruciate ligament. The next year, Ivery plays "timid," he says, afraid that the same thing will happen again.

•In the Silverdome in 1983, Archie Griffin suffers "the worst injury I ever received" when he tries to make a cut and tears an abdominal muscle, "an injury that hasn't gone away."

•Last year, playing on the turf of Michigan State's Spartan Stadium, Notre Dame wide receiver Alvin Miller goes 13 yards on an end around, trips on the turf and falls. Torn knee ligaments. He is out for the rest of the year. "He wasn't even touched," says coach Gerry Faust.

Garrick, in cooperation with the NFL, is currently studying film clips of open-field noncontact injuries. Experience tells him that "three out of four, or more, will be the result of turf traction." Because it creates severe torque, such traction has increased the trauma of many leg injuries. On turf what would have been a simple ankle sprain on grass can become a damaged knee. A damaged knee can be a career killer. "You don't just sprain a ligament and get up and walk away," says former Colorado trainer Ted Layne. "[An] anterior cruciate injury can doom a player." Three years ago, Colorado lost four players whose anterior cruciates "exploded" while playing on artificial turf. Not one of them was hit. Only one is still playing.

Other body parts are also jeopardized when a moving player gets glued to the carpet. A surface that doesn't give won't absorb the energy directed downward. Thus the body's more vulnerable joints must accommodate the punishment. The result, doctors and trainers find, is more foot problems, more ankle injuries, more knee damage.

Sometimes the turf seems to reach up and grab a player. The Steelers' Bob Kohrs was running down the field against Tampa on a punt at Three Rivers Stadium two years ago, tripped on a loose seam, tore up his knee and ended his season. Three other Steelers have been injured on the same area of the field: Eric Williams (ankle), Ernie French (ankle) and Ron Johnson (knee)—all without contact.

Turf toe is just one more painful manifestation of the hazards of turf traction. Hyperextension occurs when the toe slams into the end of the shoe from a turf-glued sudden stop or push off. Crushed down into an unyielding asphalt base, the toe has nowhere to go but back into itself. Resultant ligament and tissue damage can be permanent. Besides Csonka, turf-toe victims include Jim Covert, the Bear tackle whose foot "hurt like heck" all last year after the toe was injured on the artificial surface at Indianapolis in the last exhibition game. He still had to play: "You learn to run on the side of your foot. The problem with that was, my ankle turned over against Tampa, and it's been doing that all season."

Eric Dickerson, the Los Angeles Rams' star tailback, suffered a turf toe in his first game as a rookie, at Giants Stadium. He had to be fitted for a splint on his right foot. Two years later, he still wears the splint. Raiders safety Vann McElroy suffered a "stressed foot" when his shoe grabbed on the Raiders' turf practice field "and the arch seemed to explode." He says he played the next game "with a little help from my friends"—i.e., a pain-killing shot.

•In the 1984 season opener, the Pittsburgh Steelers' All-Pro linebacker Jack Lambert suffered a dislocated toe when he planted his left foot trying to make a tackle at Three Rivers. Two weeks ago Lambert retired, saying he "won't go through the pain I went through last year."

Then there is turf traction, which rasps and tears at exposed flesh like sandpaper. Turf abrasions frequently produce second-degree burns over bony prominences. Turf burns infect arms, legs, elbows and hands. Staph infections are not uncommon. Coach Jimmy Johnson says one of the sweeter realities of going to the grass fields of the University of Miami from the turf of Oklahoma State was all the infections he left behind. His Texas linebacker son Brent, however, did not escape a turf-burn arm infection.

"You can pad up from head to toe, and you still get burns," says Falcons guard R.C. Thielemann. "You pay the price when you wake up the next day and you're stuck to the sheets." At such times, says Chiefs guard Tom Condon, "You can't just rip the sheet off, because that starts the bleeding again. So you go in the shower and stand there with these sheets stuck to your arms and let the water kind of loosen them. It's disgusting."

In 1983, Cowboys wide receiver Doug Donley skinned his right hand on the Texas Stadium AstroTurf four times in one game, ripping away layer after layer of skin. His flesh was so tender thereafter that "it felt like it was on fire." Donley missed two games and was forced to wear gloves the rest of the season. He became so nervous about a recurrence that he wore gloves even at practice in 1984. For similar reasons, gloves have become standard equipment for many players. So have antibiotic ointments and the disinfectant scrubs players now use routinely in the showers.

Ultimately, trainers and doctors have come to realize that doomsayers like Csonka were right: The cumulative effect of playing on turf is lethal to careers. How much the deterioration of older players is accelerated nobody knows, but "it definitely shortens careers," says Georgia trainer Warren Morris. Guard Curt Marsh of the Raiders lays much of it on "the pounding you take. After a game on grass, you start feeling all right about Thursday. After a turf game, you're not well until Sunday." If then.

Redskins linebacker Pete Cronan says he "loved the turf when I was young," but now he suffers from chronic bursitis in his knees, sore elbows and sore shoulders. Pro Bowler Art Still of the Chiefs has tendinitis in both knees and says, "[The turf] just eats 'em up." Tight end Doug Cosbie of the Cowboys has developed such painful tendinitis in his knees that when he gimps around the practice field cornerback Everson Walls calls him Fred Sanford.

What made football so blind to such pain and destruction for so long? The answer is obvious. The game's administrators were taken in by a series of extravagant claims about artificial turf—all those overwhelmingly good things that were supposed to outweigh all the little-bitty bad ones. Some of the claims that sounded so outlandish aren't made anymore. Manufacturers do not say, as they once did, that turf reduces injuries. They dare not, says Garrick. As for the claim about turfs lasting a lifetime, they don't suggest that anymore, either.

There are other well-amplified "advantages" that, in a harsher light, now seem as dubious. This one, for example: "Artificial turf makes players run faster." Well, of course it does. It is as hard and fast as an indoor track. Receivers and running backs love to get that extra step, of course. But where is the edge, asks Paterno, when the turf makes the other guy a step faster, too? Moreover, asks Kansas City cornerback Albert Lewis, where is the edge when you're "shooting around the field...faster than a pinball," and the potential for self-destruction is that much greater?

Physics doesn't change. Force still equals mass times acceleration. In the end, the main thing a "faster field" accomplishes is that it makes for more violent collisions. Football definitely does not need more violent collisions.