Another health risk for prep athletes: Tough playing surfaces

Cameron Smith
November 24, 2010

Throughout the 2010 season, the biggest focus off the field has been placed squarely on concussion management. While that attention has doubtlessly increased attention and both improved and standardized concussion management, it also may have overshadowed another significant health risk facing prep athletes: Unsafe athletic fields.

According to an investigation undertaken by the Dallas Morning News, a number of athletic fields in the Dallas-Fort Worth region featured an unsafe playing surface as determined by high levels of G-max, a testing measurement that determines how much force of a collision is absorbed by a field. Perhaps more troubling, an open source request by the Morning News found that most schools in the area didn't even test their fields' G-max levels at all.

What, precisely, is the risk of a field with a higher G-max level? Such a field puts athletes that play on that high G-max surface at a significantly increased risk of injury, among them significant head trauma incidents like conccusions.

"What's absolutely true is the higher the G-max, the bigger the force the player will sustain," University of Nebraska professor Dr. Timothy Gay, a physics professor who is an expert on football impact, told the Morning News. "Hence, the bigger chance of concussive injury."

Experts have recommended schools test the G-max levels of all their fields once a year, but in the Dallas area only three of 34 schools districts performed such tests on an annual basis, while nine others had tested the fields at least once.

That wouldn't necessarily be a significant issue if fields lived up to their standard 8-10 year warranty, but the Morning News also discovered that some area fields tested to highly dangerous G-max levels after as few as five or six years.

While it's difficult to find common themes among the most affected fields, one thing seems relatively certain: Artificial turf fields have made the risks of prep athletics on hard fields more murky rather than provide any level of clarity.

"Right now, it's kind of the wild, wild West," Wayne Poage, the former Dallas Baptist University athletic director who now works as a representative for the turf manufacturing company Polytan told the Morning News.

"There are not a lot of standards out there, and most people don't know what their kids are playing on, and I don't think they know if it's safe or not. I think there is a real lack of knowledge about artificial turf."

While the Morning News' findings don't provide an indictment against high school field levels nationwide, they do highlight a scary precedent for fields in areas outside of Texas. The Dallas area boasts some of the country's better-funded high school athletic programs. One program in particular -- Episcopal School of Dallas -- has a very large athletic budget, yet still had three fields with highly dangerous G-max levels.

And while annual G-max tests aren't cheap -- the Morning News reported that they cost somewhere between $750-$1,000 -- they're still a tiny fraction of the cost of a new turf stadium renovation, which often runs $300,000-$1 million.

All of that makes the lack of attention being paid on the impact rating of fields even more puzzling, and concerning.

"Once these companies put the turf in, they really don't say you need to have someone come out here and test it every year," Bucky Taylor, the former head athletic trainer of Mesquite (Texas) High School. "Some kind of industry standard should provide testing for 10 years or so. There needs to be some more guidance from the industry that this is what you need to do and how you need to do it."

Want more on the best stories in high school sports? Visit RivalsHigh or connect with Prep Rally on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.