NFLPA president J.C. Tretter calls for all of league's turf fields to be converted to natural grass

The overwhelming majority of NFL players have long preferred playing on natural grass rather than artificial turf, and now the head of the players union is calling for the elimination of turf entirely, or at least until the technology improves.

In an open letter posted on the NFL Players Association website, union president J.C. Tretter advocated for the NFL to change all artificial turf fields, even at practice facilities, to natural grass. Tretter cited years of injury data and the opinions of his fellow players.

From the NFLPA:

The data supports the anecdotes you’ll hear from me and other players: artificial turf is significantly harder on the body than grass. Based on NFL injury data collected from 2012 to 2018, not only was the contact injury rate for lower extremities higher during practices and games held on artificial turf, NFL players consistently experienced a much higher rate of non-contact lower extremity injuries on turf compared to natural surfaces. Specifically, 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.

That data backs up what the NFL has seen this season, or at least at one particular stadium.

Turf injuries back in the news for NFL

The San Francisco 49ers saw five significant players, including starting quarterback Jimmy Garropolo, exit Week 2’s road game against the New York Jets with a lower leg injury. Pro Bowl defensive end Nick Bosa and defensive line starter Solomon Thomas are now out for the season with torn ACLs.

Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan explicitly blamed the MetLife Stadium turf as a reason behind the injuries after the game. An inspection of the turf in the following week cleared the turf, only for that same Niners team to lose tight end Jordan Reed the next week against the New York Giants.

Tretter specifically took issue with the kind of field inspection that cleared MetLife, saying the Clegg test used to evaluate fields is “not nearly as comprehensive for what the modern game requires.” He said that the union has repeatedly raised the issue, and now wants “a complete overhaul.”

San Francisco 49ers defensive end Nick Bosa (97) is carted off the field after being injured during the first half of an NFL football game against the New York Jets, Sunday, Sept. 20, 2020, in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)
Injuries on the MetLife Stadium turf have ravaged the Niners, including Nick Bosa. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

Tretter pointed to the Green Bay Packers and Cleveland Browns as examples that show climate is not an insurmountable barrier for natural grass fields, and said that Arizona Cardinals and Las Vegas Raiders have shown the same grass can be used indoors.

Tretter didn’t rule out the idea of turf playing surfaces entirely. If turf or cleat technology progresses to the point that the injury risk is reduced, he could see a use for the surface. Until then, he wants only natural grass:

Earlier this year, the NFL and NFLPA tasked artificial turf manufacturers with developing a surface like natural grass that meets the specifications developed by our respective engineering experts. We also challenged cleat manufacturers to design innovative footwear that is safer and tailored to both players’ needs and to specific surfaces. There is no guarantee that artificial turf manufacturers will be able to create a product that provides as safe of a surface as natural grass, so we should not sit around hoping that happens. Until a product is developed that satisfies engineering specifications, we must take steps to protect players from unsafe field surfaces. In short, NFL clubs should proactively change all field surfaces to natural grass.

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