Turf wars: NFL players and owners are at odds over replacing artificial surfaces with grass

“The sport is violent enough. We shouldn’t be taking more damage from the field, too”

Without the colorful team logos painted in the end zones, it’s nearly impossible to tell one NFL field from another on TV or from the stands.

However, an increasing number of players and coaches, including the 49ers’ George Kittle and Nick Bosa, are requesting that the NFL investigate the league’s growing turf war.

The advantages and disadvantages of artificial turf vs. natural grass have been debated since 1969, when the Philadelphia Eagles became the first NFL team to play on AstroTurf, three years after it debuted in the Houston Astrodome. However, with salaries and team values continuing to rise, the stakes for the players and the league have never been higher.

“No one knows the beating that our bodies take on turf more than us — the players,” former 49ers defensive end Solomon Thomas said late last season on Twitter. “The sport is already violent enough. We shouldn’t be taking any additional damage from the field.”

Synthetic turf has been improved over the years to make the surfaces safer. They are, however, harder than natural grass and do not provide the same amount of give to ankles, knees, and other body parts.

Sixteen of the 30 NFL stadiums have natural grass. Because the two shared stadiums (MetLife Stadium for the Giants and Jets and SoFi Stadium for the Rams and Chargers) both have synthetic turf, half of the NFL teams play on artificial surfaces.

Grass fields, of course, will not eliminate injuries — or completely eliminate headaches. The grass problems at Levi’s Stadium when it first opened in 2014 and for several seasons after made headlines. However, the surface at the 49ers’ home field is now regarded as one of the best in the league, even receiving approval from “The Sodfather,” George Toma, the legendary groundskeeper who has assisted in the preparation of the field for every Super Bowl.

Kittle shared a Change.org petition calling for the NFL to switch to natural surfaces in all of its stadiums before Super Bowl LVI a year and a half ago.

“As I’ve said before, artificial turf is like playing on cement. It’s time to play smarter rather than harder! Sign the petition to help us #FlipTheTurf,” Kittle wrote.

The game was played on artificial turf at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, the Rams’ new $5 billion facility. When his leg caught on the surface during the game, Rams star receiver Odell Beckham Jr. tore his ACL. Many NFL players took to social media to express their concern about the injury.

Deebo Samuel, a Niners wide receiver, tagged the NFL in a tweet that said, “Turf should be banned.” And, in a tweet, Bosa linked to the petition and shared his own injury horror story, saying, “Every player is one play away from changing their career forever when playing on turf.” This had a negative impact on me, which could have been avoided.”

Since suffering a season-ending torn ACL in the second game of the 2020 season on the MetLife Stadium turf, Bosa’s only Twitter activity has been about stadium surfaces.

Turf has become safer and more resembling to grass as technology has advanced. However, natural grass is overwhelmingly preferred by players, who report feeling more fatigued and scoring after playing on synthetic surfaces. The NFLPA also points to a poll in which 90 percent of the players who responded said playing on turf would likely cut their career short.

The NFL has responded to the call for surface changes by claiming that recent data shows that the difference in injuries between grass and artificial surfaces is minimal. However, the players achieved a minor victory before the start of the season.

MetLife Stadium (shared by the New York Giants and New York Jets) and Ford Field (Detroit Lions) have replaced slit film turf with different synthetic surfaces, which is considered the most potentially dangerous of the synthetic surfaces due to gaps in the material that can catch players’ cleats.

Paycor Stadium (Cincinnati Bengals), Caesars Superdome (New Orleans Saints), Lucas Oil Stadium (Indianapolis Colts), and U.S. Bank Stadium (Minnesota Vikings) are the only NFL stadiums that use slit film turf. On October 23, the 49ers will face the Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium.

NFLPA president JC Tretter has spoken out about the players’ desire for the NFL to require natural grass surfaces in all of its facilities.

A switch to grass would be costly. According to some estimates, converting an artificial turf stadium to natural turf would cost nearly a billion dollars. Teams that play in cold weather or in enclosed stadiums would have to resod several times throughout the season.

The 49ers have been among the most vocal teams in the push to go natural, owing in large part to injuries sustained on turf over the years.

Back-to-back trips to MetLife Stadium in New Jersey resulted in injuries to more than a half-dozen key players on what the 49ers later described as “sticky” turf, effectively ending San Francisco’s 2020 season.

Bosa and Thomas both suffered season-ending knee injuries in a Week 2 game against the Jets, while quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (ankle) and running backs Raheem Mostert (knee) and Tevin Coleman (knee) were also injured. Tight end Jordan Reed (knee and ankle) and cornerback Emmanuel Moseley (concussion) were both injured on the same turf a week later against the Giants. The 49ers didn’t even take a chance on Kittle, who was recovering from an ankle injury.

A year later, in the 2021 season opener against Detroit, cornerback Jason Verrett tore his ACL on the turf. Moseley also suffered a season-ending injury last season when his knee buckled on the turf at Carolina’s Bank of America Stadium.

“Turf is turf,” they say. After Moseley’s injury in Carolina, Kittle told reporters, “It is what it is.” “I’d rather play on the grass.” That’s why I admire (49ers owner) Jed York. We have the most beautiful grass field in the NFL. Our practice fields are consistently the best in the league. And we have the most beautiful game field.”

It’s not just the players who want things to change. After star receiver D.K. Metcalf suffered a non-contact knee injury on SoFi Stadium’s turf, Seattle Seahawks head coach Peter Carroll suggested the NFL “seriously” consider switching to grass.

“We’ve got to do what’s right, and we’ve got to do what’s safest for the players, and we have to make those choices,” Carroll told reporters. “I would pound on the drum for that.”

Time will tell whether owners will heed the calls for change. But, for the time being, the 49ers are content to let the grass grow at Levi’s Stadium.

“I know how much everyone prefers grass,” 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan said last season to reporters. “… I can’t express how much of a difference it has made for us. I’m relieved we don’t have to deal with that in our stadium.”

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