The Grounds on Which We Play: The Dangers of Artificial Turf Fields
April 5, 2023
About a month ago, the Philadelphia Inquirer published a report regarding the fates of six former Philadelphia Phillies baseball players. Each had died from brain cancer believed to have been caused by so-called “forever chemicals” embedded into the turf used for the playing field at Veterans Stadium. With this article, the Inquirer has reopened the debate regarding turf playing surfaces. The dangers of turf fields have been known as long as they have been played on, so it raises the question: Why do athletics continue to use them? Firstly, we must understand why turf fields became a commonality to begin with. Let’s take a look back at the origins of turf fields.
In 1965, the Houston Astrodome was opened. The “8th wonder of the world” was a magnificent display of human achievement and a looming presence on the horizons of the Texas prairies. The dome was to block out the immense heat of the Texas summers and shelter both the Astros and Oilers for their respective seasons. One issue: the natural grass in the dome couldn’t grow. The blackened roof of the dome blocked out practically all sunlight, and as the grass died out, the city of Houston needed a solution. Enter Missouri – based chemical company Monsanto. Monsanto’s “chem-grass” was installed in the Astrodome, earning it the moniker of “astroturf”. The turf was more cost effective, didn’t require constant maintenance, and could easily be switched from football to baseball and vice versa. Astroturf was successful because it was cheap, and the various cousins of astroturf used today are cheap and easy to maintain. Monsanto became the major supplier of basically every turf field in the country after the success of astroturf.
With the rise of astroturf also came the rise of dual-use stadiums in the United States. All over the country, from Seattle to Cincinnati to Philadelphia, almost every dual-use stadium used astroturf. Yet instantly players began to complain of the surfaces in which they practiced and played on everyday. In St. Louis’s Busch Stadium, during the humid summers the temperature on the turf could reach up to 140 degrees fahrenheit. According to former players, the turf got so hot that people would jokingly crack open eggs and watch them “fry” on the surface.
In addition to the horrific heat on the surface, both football and baseball players struggled to navigate the treacherous fields. All turf fields were put together like puzzles with giant “seams” connecting each piece. Brutal knee, ankle, and head injuries would come about due to the playing surfaces. In football, players running the ball try to cut up and down the field. When the surface doesn’t give to the juke or a player’s leg got caught in the seam, depending on the hit the players receive, it can be devastating. One specific example is Ki-Jana Carter. Carter was the Bengals first round draft pick in 1995. On only his third pre-season carry, Carter’s leg got snagged in the Pontiac Silverdome’s turf. As two Detroit Lions converged on Carter, his ACL gave way, costing Carter his entire rookie season and zapping his elusive speed that had made him a star running back. Another example is Wendell Davis. Davis was a receiver for the Chicago Bears. During a game against the Philadelphia Eagles in 1993, Davis attempted to catch a high pass and landed so awkwardly on the terrible playing surface at Veterans Stadium that he tore both patella tendons in his knees. This ended Davis’s career and left him in a wheelchair for months. On that same day, Steve Emtman tore his ACL, MCL, and patellar tendon after getting his foot caught in a seam at the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis. Emtman, a former standout star for the Washington Huskies and 1st overall pick for the Indianapolis Colts, was never the same player after this injury and retired at the age of 27.
These stories are just some of the many career altering/career ending injuries suffered on turf playing surfaces. However, towards the turn of the 21st century, turf fields began to see some improvements. Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, after having a pre-season NFL game canceled due to poor playing conditions, replaced their turf with more “natural looking” turf in 2003. Busch Stadium swapped out turf for grass in 1994. The same could be said for Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati. However, as the new era of both baseball and football stadiums came about, turf wouldn’t suddenly go away. In fact, it became vital for sporting venues across the nation from the professional leagues to high school.
Even with its various flaws, artificial turf has evolved tremendously over the years. When first introduced, turf was simply a giant two-inch thick carpet on top of a line layer of rubber then concrete. Today, almost all turf fields go from a layer of fake grass chalked full of little rubber pellets to an infill of sand or rubber, another layer of rubber, then the base. This makes the turf safer to land on when being tackled or diving for a flyball. Unfortunately, the sins of artificial turf weren’t done wreaking havoc on a whole new generation of ballplayers.
I have played baseball turf fields in the past and I can attest that they are really nice to play on. I feel lighter on my feet, I slide farther, and I never have to worry about a bad hop on a hard-hit ground ball. Unfortunately there are some extreme downsides to turf. The rubber pellets used in new age turf absorb heat during the summer time causing the field temperatures to rise dramatically. At times playing at Gardner Webb’s baseball field, which is all turf, my feet were on fire. This isn’t just a local issue. In 2015, at an Allen High School football practice in Texas, players reported their cleats were literally melting from the extreme heat.
Here’s a more personal example. My cousin Zach played high school and college football in Minnesota. With the abrasive conditions of Minnesota, snow build-up and freezing conditions wore down the field turf. Zach explained, “Our turf was old and kept outside all year around with snow packed on top of it for months. It was not as fluffy as some fields…because of this we had lots of guys that would get shin splints bad throughout the season.”
In addition to Zach, I asked some of my friends who play football at D.W Daniel High School, which is near Clemson, about whether all grass or turf was better. Every single one agreed a natural grass field was better. Jason Bish said, “Turf is hard and has less traction. It’s way easier to get injured on a turf field, especially ACL tears.” Sean Bolger told me, “Grass. It feels more natural to play on. You can use more of your actual cleat to gain ground.” Greyson Davis said, “Turf is slippery and it hurts if you slide or fall on it”.
Regardless of conditions, natural grass fields are preferred to turf fields. This isn’t just an amateur players’ issue either. Last year, JC Tretter, center for the Cleveland Browns and the NFL Players Association president, wrote a statement emphasizing the danger of continuing to play on turf fields. Using numbers from NFL player injury data, Tretter claimed, “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.” The NFL has seen some of its best players go down with injuries while playing on turf fields, usually for the same reasons players were getting hurt on turf fields 40 years ago. That covers football, but what about the danger for baseball players?
Going back to the initial report done by the Philadelphia Inquirer, the forever chemicals in artificial turf are a widespread issue for many reasons. Remember the rubber pellets I mentioned earlier and how they can be superheated on summer days? Well, those rubber pellets are made from ground-up old tires. Those tires hold hundreds of harmful chemicals from years and years of driving through mud, rainwater, and gasoline spills. Those pellets have been used in some form since the invention of artificial turf. So when these pellets absorb the summer heat, they release chemical fumes that can be extremely harmful. According to the New York State Health Department, “Tires are manufactured from natural and synthetic rubbers along with numerous chemical additives, including zinc, sulfur, carbon black, and oils that contain polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) and semi-volatile organic chemicals (SVOCs). Because crumb rubber is manufactured from used tires, it is expected to contain the same chemicals as tire rubber.” It doesn’t take a genius to know breathing in things like zinc and synthetic rubber fumes isn’t good for you. In the Veterans Stadium turf that the six dead Philadelphia Phillies played on, 16 forever chemicals were found. It’s not just Philadelphia’s turf either. One of baseball’s quirkiest characters, Dan Quisenberry, passed away in 2000 from a brain tumor at only 44 years old. Quisenberry played the majority of his career for the Kansas City Royals, a team that used very similar artificial turf to the Phillies. The same could be said for his manager, Dick Howser, who died at only 51 years old. Gary Carter, who played his first 11 seasons for the Montreal Expos, a team whose home field was turf, died from the same form of cancer as Quisenberry, Howser, and the six dead Phillies.
Answering the question “Why do we continue to use turf fields?” is simple: money. Once a turf field is installed, the costs of maintenance drop dramatically and teams don’t have to worry any longer about winterizing, cutting, or dragging natural playing surfaces. However, turf fields have proven time and time again that they are a danger to athletes from elementary age all the way up to the big leagues. People can play their sports without it. FIFA was the first major organization to ban all turf fields after players complained about the wear and tear on their bodies. The NFL is considering this same procedure. Modern MLB stadiums can have natural grass and a domed stadium. Just look at Seattle’s T-Mobile Park, Milwaukee’s American Family Field, and, ironically in the place where the turf fiasco started, Houston’s Minute Maid Park. Turf must go to ensure a safer and healthier environment for the future athletes of this world to play.