Artificial Turf vs Natural Grass: What You Need to Know

By: Nick Weimer

When you’re on the clock in your fantasy draft and questions are racing through your head, a thought that probably won’t (and shouldn’t) surface is the type of playing field your fantasy selection will play on this year. However, playing on artificial turf instead of natural grass carries an increased risk of a lower extremity injury and can also keep a player sidelined for an extended period of time (think turf toe).  Although players who play in the National Football League are at risk of injury simply by stepping on the field, here are a few important details to keep in your back pocket when dealing with turf-related injuries and quality of NFL playing fields.

The American Journal of Sports Medicine published a study titled “An Analysis of Specific Lower Extremity Injury Rates on Grass and Field Turf Playing Surfaces in NFL Games” in Sept. 2012. The study, which was affiliated with countless orthopedic surgery clinics across the United States, sampled all of the 2,680 NFL games that were played between 2000-2009 (2,002 games on natural grass and 678 games on Field Turf). In the NFL, there exists a committee called the Injury Surveillance System (ISS) that includes doctors and statisticians who analyze NFL injuries and strive to make the game as medically safe as possible. The study data included 1,528 knee sprains and 1,503 ankle sprains that were acknowledged by the ISS over the 10-year span.

The results? At a 95% confidence level, knee sprains were 22% higher on Field Turf than on natural grass. Increases of 67% and 31% for ACL sprains and eversion ankle sprains (overextending the inner part of the ankle), respectively, were noticed on Field Turf versus natural grass.

Why does this happen? Simply put: Friction. You would think that higher friction would keep a player’s foot from sliding and causing an injury in itself. Instead, the coefficient of friction for fields with turf are so high, that the foot can’t naturally slide to prevent an overextension of a joint in the leg. As such, the player is significantly more prone to knee sprains and eversion ankle sprains for turf fields than grass fields.

After discovering the increase in injuries of players, you may find it hard to believe why all stadiums don’t use natural grass. The upkeep of natural grass is very expensive and demanding, especially when the stadium has difficulty growing grass in northern climates or the field is in use year round. For example, Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field is natural grass but is ranked last in field quality of all natural grass stadiums. At times, Heinz field can be just as firm as many turf fields.

A biannual survey is conducted by the NFL Players Association about the quality and impact of playing fields in the NFL. Out of 1,619 players surveyed, 69.4% of players would rather play on a grass field than a turf field. Furthermore, 89.1% expressed that playing on artificial turf causes more soreness and fatigue to play on. Of the 14 artificial turf fields, the players ranked Minnesota, Buffalo, St. Louis, and Cincinnati as the worst of all turf fields, and of the 18 natural grass fields, Pittsburgh, Oakland, Chicago, and Miami were the least favorable.

An injury that turf fields have become increasingly associated with is a sprain to the metatarsophalangeal joint (main joint of the big toe), or “turf toe”. Whenever a person is running, they place their weight on the big toe and then use this joint to push downward and propel forward. Turf toe occurs when the area around this joint becomes inflamed due to overextending the toe backwards or incidentally not pushing off with the big toe (leaving severe weight force on the joint). It happens more often on turf fields because the firmness of a turf field (measured in g-max) is higher than on natural grass fields. This impacts the risk of injury because when a player takes a step, the firm ground is not able to cushion the joint as well as a softer field would. If you try placing all of your weight on the ball of your foot while standing on a hard surface like wood or concrete, you may feel a slight pain in the tendon beneath your toe. This tendon and its surrounding tissue inflames when a player injures the joint and can be very tricky to reduce the swelling. In severe cases, the metatarsophalangeal joint can tear which could end an NFL player’s season.

Normally, turf toe is simply treated with rest, ice, compression, and elevation. But, players are usually anxious to return to the lineup and fail to give their injury proper treatment. This causes a nagging and statistically detrimental injury to linger. Chances are, if your fantasy player has turf toe, a cortisone shot will be administered before each game and it takes week-to-week monitoring of the situation to know if he will remain in the lineup. Furthermore, those playing on artificial turf fields run an increased risk of re-injuring the joint. Turf toe injuries are graded on a scale of 1-3. While a grade “3” is indicative of a MTP joint tear, grade “2” injuries take upwards of two weeks to heal and grade “1” injuries usually take a few days. For reference, an infamous injury that hurt fantasy owner’s last year was that of Beanie Wells. This was a grade “3” turf toe injury that caused Wells to miss 8 weeks of the season. When dealing with such an injury on your fantasy team, pay attention to the grade of the injury to get a general sense of when your player will/should return to the lineup (you may need to do some web digging to get an actual grade of the injury).

I would not place a great deal of thought into the type of field your player will perform on in the early stages of the draft.  Pick how you would if you somehow had the precognition that neither player would get hurt this season. However, while many owners have thrown in the towel at the end of your draft, you may want to take a flyer on an extra fantasy backup (running backs especially) as insurance for an injury-risk player that you drafted earlier. Also, closely monitor turf toe injuries and don’t be surprised if the player worsens the injury by insisting to play (always grab back-ups!). TopTeamFantasy is a great place to check for the latest player rankings and the inside scoop on injuries!

Here are all the NFL teams that currently have artificial turf playing fields and the RBs that may be more susceptible to injuries due to the artificial turf (and their NFL lower body injury history over the last two seasons). Note: We could have included other positions as well, but RBs get banged up the most of any position.

Atlanta Falcons: Steven Jackson (foot/knee), Jacquizz Rodgers
Baltimore Ravens: Ray Rice (toe/hip), Bernard Pierce (knee/ankle)
Buffalo Bills: C.J. Spiller (knee), Fred Jackson (leg/knee)
Cincinnati Bengals: BenJarvus Green-Ellis (toe/ankle), Giovani Bernard
Dallas Cowboys: DeMarco Murray (ankle/foot), Joseph Randle
Detroit Lions: Reggie Bush (knee/hip/groin), Mikell Leshoure (Achilles/ankle), Joique Bell
Indianapolis Colts: Ahmad Bradshaw (knee/foot/ankle), Vick Ballard
Minnesota Vikings: Adrian Peterson (knee/ankle), Toby Gerhart
New England Patriots: Stevan Ridley (ankle), Shane Vereen (hamstring/foot)
New Orleans Saints: Darren Sproles, Mark Ingram (toe/heel), Pierre Thomas (ankle/knee)
NY Jets: Chris Ivory (foot/hamstring), Mike Goodson (hamstring/toe/hip/ankle), Bilal Powell (toe)
NY Giants: David Wilson, Andre Brown (leg)
St. Louis Rams: Daryl Richardson, Isaiah Pead, Zac Stacy
Seattle Seahawks: Marshawn Lynch (foot/ankle), Robert Turbin, Christine Michael

Obviously, don’t avoid any of these guys in fantasy football, but if you have the #1 pick and grab Adrian Peterson, perhaps this is even more reason to spend your last pick handcuffing him with Toby Gerhart (currently not even being drafted in 10 team or 12 team leagues). He may take up a spot on your bench, but if something were to happen to your prized star RB, you don’t want to have to scramble to the waiver wire to try to replace him.

Follow us on Twitter @BustaWeims and @TopTeamFantasy to get the latest fantasy news and advice.

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