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The Future of FieldTurf

When artificial turf first made its way onto the market in the mid-1960's under the name of "Chemgrass," disdain was largely the response from the purists and traditionalists in the sporting world , but many of a more pragmatic mold hailed the new technology. Not only did it allow for the rise of dome stadiums -- beginning with the Houston Astrodome in 1966, at which point its named was changed to AstroTurf -- but many felt it provided a more consistent playing surface, was more durable, and others found cost savings by not having to spend money paying for groundskeepers and materials to maintain a natural playing surface.

It didn't take long for AstroTurf to become all of the rage in the sporting world. AstroTurf LLC opened a manufacturing facility in Dalton, Georgia in 1968, and soon its product was found in sporting arenas all over the country. By 1974, even the Super Bowl was being played on AstroTurf, the World Series followed in 1975, and the new technology helped spur a construction boom for indoor sporting venues. By the late 1970's, AstroTurf was everywhere in the SEC, and when the SEC Champion made its annual trip down to the Big Easy, it played on the green artificial carpet of the Louisiana Superdome. And as nearly all Alabama fans will recall, AstroTurf was also put down in Legion Field.

As time moved on, however, skepticism of the synthetic carpets began to rise. Physicians and team medical trainers began to document that players were injured at a greater frequency on the artificial surfaces, including an assortment of injuries such as torn knee ligaments, concussions, ankle sprains, and increased muscle soreness. Other injuries, such as turf burns and turf toe, were almost entirely unique to artificial turf. Confirmations from academic studies came in the coming years.

When the harsh realities of the artificial surfaces became more undeniable, there began a growing pressure to rip up the carpet and re-install natural grass surfaces. Florida went back to grass when Steve Spurrier arrived in 1990, and many others soon followed. Legion Field went back to natural grass in 1995, and by the end of the decade games on AstroTurf became a rarity. In 2004, the parent company of AstroTurf filed for bankruptcy.

With AstroTurf all but dead by the turn of the new millennium, a new product suddenly came to the forefront, FieldTurf. The new surface was composed of monofilament polyethylene blend fibers tufted into a polypropylene backing, and in layman's terms was intended to more closely replicate real grass. Early studies into the impact of the surface found that it reduced the risk of injuries when compared to AstroTurf, and it didn't take long for the new kid on the block to start eating away at market share. FieldTurf first appeared in an NFL stadium with the opening of Qwest Field in 2002, and it soon spread throughout college football as well. Several major programs now have FieldTurf instead of grass -- including Texas, Ohio State, and Nebraska -- and it has been used in the Hank Crisp Indoor Facility in Tuscaloosa for many years now. Fourteen NFL venues currently have a form of the product installed.

But is it really that much safer, and does it truly replicate the impact of having a natural grass playing surface? Perhaps not. A study recently conducted by the NFL did not reach that conclusion, far from it in fact. Consider the following blurbs from Pro Football Talk and NBC Sports:

The NFL's Injury and Safety Panel presented a study today finding that anterior cruciate ligament injuries happened 88 percent more often in games played on FieldTurf than in games played on grass, the Associated Press is reporting.

The rate for the ankle sprains was 32 percent higher on FieldTurf than on grass. MCL injuries and a less serious type of ankle sprain also happened more frequently, but the difference was not statistically significant.

Admittedly, these findings should be taken with somewhat of a grain of salt. NFL league spokesman Greg Aiello explicitly said that further study was needed, and (naturally) the FieldTurf President Eric Daliere said the study was flawed. To be more precise, specifically:

FieldTurf president Eric Daliere argues that the panel's methods are faulty and cites research by Montana State professor Michael Meyers that has been published in The American Journal of Sports Medicine. Meyers' work, though, has only looked at high school and college football, and not the NFL. FieldTurf paid for Meyers' recent study that found lower overall injury rates for college games played on the surface.

Daliere's response is hardly surprising given his financial and emotional stake in his company, but in all fairness more study is clearly needed at this point. Perhaps FieldTurf is inherently more dangerous, perhaps this study by the NFL indeed was a flawed one. Perhaps FieldTurf increases injuries in the NFL -- where the league has the resources to maintain grass surfaces at a very high level -- whereas FieldTurf decreases injuries at the collegiate level (where resources are nowhere near as plentiful). Again, more study is needed before we can reach any definitive conclusions.

So why is any of this relevant on an Alabama football blog?

Well, whether true or not, there has been a lot of rumblings lately that Alabama will be moving to FieldTurf in 2010. In fact, this rumor has even reached the point of finding its way to the Bryant-Denny Stadium Wikipedia page:

Prior to the 2010 season, the traditional grass surface will be replaced with the new "Field Turf" design.

(Naturally, citation needed).

Maybe that's true, maybe that's not. We make it a point here at RBR to emphasize that we analyze and provide commentary, but do not actively report news or confirm or deny rumors. We'll see in time if there is any fire underneath all of this smoke.

Nevertheless, I do suppose that at the least it is a legitimate possibility. We have had serious issues with the natural grass in Bryant-Denny for as long as I remember, and frankly things haven't really improved. Each and every year, things look good enough at the start of the year, but by mid-season the field is generally a wreck. We played on AstroTurf for more than two decades, so it wouldn't exactly be a major shock to see us install FieldTurf.

If we go down the FieldTurf route, however, it should only be done after the most intense of considerations. Simply put, injuries translate directly into losses. If your players are injured at higher rates, and are saddled with more serious injuries, that creates a direct competitive disadvantage to your (relatively) healthier competition. With that in mind, between games and scrimmages Alabama plays approximately 14 games per year in Bryant-Denny Stadium (real and simulated), and if FieldTurf indeed does significantly increase injuries, then it probably follows that we will likely see an increase in injuries if we indeed rip up the grass. Again, that impact would definitely create a competitive disadvantage for our beloved Tide. None of this is to say that we should stay away from FieldTurf, and admittedly the situation is more complicated than I have sketched here because there are so many moving parts to this equation, but it is to say that if we do decide to install FieldTurf, we should only do so after the most intensive and exhaustive investigative process.