NFLPA says new data shows turf fields still cause more injuries than natural surfaces

The debate between turf versus natural grass fields heated up Thursday when NFLPA president J.C. Tretter shared new data which he said re-proved the idea that injuries occur more frequently on synthetic surfaces than natural ones.

Data showed that an injury occurred almost 0.013 more times per 100 plays on turf than natural grass in 2022 — a steep increase from 2021 where an injury occurred almost the same amount of times. Between 2018-2020, the difference remained steady at around 0.01 more times per 100 plays. Thirteen of the league's 31 stadiums use turf.

"In short, last year, the gap — much like the NFL’s credibility with players on this issue — was as wide as it has ever been, proving that (as the NFLPA suspected) 2021 was in fact an outlier," Tretter wrote. "Now, 10 of the previous 11 years show the same exact thing — grass is a significantly safer surface than turf."

Tretter, who last played for the Cleveland Browns in 2021, wrote a similar story on the injury concerns with turf.

Tretter added that the Carolina Panthers' home field failed the "Clegg" test — how the NFL measures a field's hardness and therefore its playability for games — before the team's Week 16 game against the Detroit Lions on Christmas Eve. Players reportedly reached out to Tretter and the NFLPA, describing the turf as "way too hard ... as concrete" and "couldn’t even wear cleats because they wouldn’t sink into the turf."

"When we reached out to the league, they told us they were aware of these concerns and were working to remedy them," Tretter wrote. "However, instead of delaying the game or finding another way to fix the issue, the league gave the green light to kick off the game as scheduled.

"Afterward, the league told us that late in the first half, the field finally did fall below the 100g max. But the fact remains that the players in that game had to play on a field that the league acknowledges was not safe. That is beyond frustrating to players and unacceptable in the eyes of our union."

The NFLPA filed a grievance against the NFL and the Panthers for this on Jan. 1, according to ESPN.

The NFL turf war continued with new data revealed. (Photo by Erica Denhoff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
The NFL turf war continued with new data revealed. (Photo by Erica Denhoff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

NFL claims "there are no simple answers" to turf vs. grass debate

In response to Tretter's post, Jeff Miller, the NFL's executive vice president of communications, public affairs and policy, wrote in a statement Thursday that "simply playing on natural grass is not the answer to this complex challenge."

"Some artificial turf surfaces have a lower injury rate than some grass fields — and some grass fields have a lower injury rate than some artificial surfaces," Miller said, via ESPN. "Our goal is to decrease injuries on all surfaces. There are no simple answers, but we are committed to the substantial, ongoing work with the players and their expert advisors to make the game safer."

The league has long fought against the assertion that injuries happen more frequently on turf than on natural grass.

The NFLPA pushed for a review of the turf after the San Francisco 49ers lost several key players to major injuries after the team played the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium in 2020, but an NFL investigation determined the field was fit for play.

Two years later, Tretter called for the immediate ban of "slit film turf," citing injury concerns. The Jets, New York Giants, Detroit Lions, Minnesota Vikings, New Orleans Saints, Indianapolis Colts and Cincinnati Bengals all use slit film turf. Miller said in a statement that there was "no difference" between the number of injuries on turf versus grass.

“While slit-film surfaces, one type of synthetic material, have 2-3 more injuries per year, most of them are ankle sprains — a low-burden injury — whereas slit film also sees a lower rate of fewer high-burden ACL injuries compared to other synthetic fields," Miller said. "As a result, the league and NFLPA’s joint experts did not recommend any changes to surfaces at the meeting but agreed more study is needed.”

Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones agreed and claimed the league stats "don't see issues with the type of surface that we have as opposed to natural grass" during a 2022 interview with 105.3 The Fan.

MetLife Stadium installed new turf this offseason. The Tennessee Titans did as well.

NFL coaches and players want natural grass

While the league and the owners don't want to fully convert to grass, some coaches and players do.

Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll and safety Quandre Diggs both called for the league to look into making the switch. Carroll said this past October that the NFL must continue to study the situation because "it just feels like something is up, too many guys going down when they're not even touching anybody." Diggs added that grass is "so much better" while turf at a place like Lumen Field is "a little more sticky than others" and SoFi Stadium is "slick."

"I know it's hard to upkeep grass, but at the end of the day, we've got to do what's best for this billion-dollar industry, and I think the players are a big part of that," Diggs said. "So maybe we can take some ideas from the players."

A huge issue arose at Super Bowl LVII when Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Haason Reddick called State Farm Stadium "the worst field I ever played on because of how slippery it was." The NFL's longtime chief groundskeeper blamed the NFL for overwatering the artificial turf, which created a poor playing surface for players. The league later said the field met the NFL's standards.

This issue isn't going away anytime soon, so long as neither side can reach a consensus on which surface is safer for players. But Tretter still believes that the NFL could solve these problems if it wanted.

"The NFL and team owners have the resources to fix these safety issues with fields, and it is inexplicable why there is such a failure to protect players on an issue that everyone knows is a problem," Tretter wrote. "As much as the NFL wants to ignore the grass field issue, the data and their actions will continue to demonstrate their callous hypocrisy."

This article contains affiliate links; if you click such a link and make a purchase, we may earn a commission.