Turf Battle in the NFL: Natural vs. Artificial

SoFi stadium photo with NFL logo at top left and headline Turf Fight: Grass or Artificial Turf?

The biggest day in football turned a Super Bowl spotlight on the NFL fight over artificial turf or natural grass fields. The matchup featured a grass seed company petitioning for natural turf and a Rams player’s high-profile injury on artificial grass.

The feud continues on Twitter, and the number of signers of the petition grows.

How did we get here? And what’s next?

Super Bowl LVI Turf Injuries

Super Bowl LVI came to an end with Los Angeles Rams’ quarterback Matthew Stafford taking a knee on his home turf at SoFi Stadium. As knee and turf met, time ran out in the Rams’ 23-20 win over the Cincinnati Bengals.

Significantly, before the Feb. 13, 2022, game was even over, National Football League players were raising voices in a chorus calling for the turf on which Stafford’s knee came to rest to be replaced with natural grass.

This call to arms was ratcheted up after Rams’ receiver Odell Beckham Jr. suffered a torn ACL in the second quarter of the game. The serendipity that came with the Rams playing on their home turf had vanished in an instant.

Knee injuries are hardly unknown in football. They came aboard with the original pigskin. But Beckham Jr.’s injury wasn’t the residue of a savage hit by a heavily padded defender. 

It just happened. Beckham Jr. was running a crossing pattern while Stafford targeted him for a decent-sized yardage gain. Beckham Jr. was never touched by a Bengals defender. He never caught the ball. 

Instead, it seemed that Beckham Jr.’s left foot got caught in the artificial turf. He clutched his left leg as he fell to the field. His day and season were done. 

Beckham Jr. earned the Super Bowl ring he badly wanted, but he’s a free agent now, and at least part of his 2022 season seems likely to be lost to the injury. Will the Rams want an injured Beckham Jr. back to call the SoFi turf his own? Who knows?

Artificial Turf Like ‘Playing on Cement’

Even before the game, San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle had posted a link on Twitter, hashtagged #FlipTheTurf, saying that “artificial turf feels like playing on cement.”

After the game, Kittle’s 49ers teammate, edge rusher Nick Bosa, linked to the same petition. He talked about his own experience with a 2020 injury. 

In San Francisco’s first road game of that season, he suffered a season-ending knee injury on the turf at the New York Jets’ home, New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium. 

Bosa said he didn’t feel alone, that “Every player is one play away from altering their career forever.” He was. Bosa didn’t play again until 2021.

Pennington’s #FlipTheTurf Campaign

The #FlipTheTurf petition didn’t start with the players. It originated with the Pennington Grass Seed company, which has a financial incentive should stadiums NFL teams move to grass from the fake stuff. 

How loudly is Pennington pushing to #FlipTheTurf? The grass seed company spent millions for a Super Bowl ad touting the petition, raising player concerns, and offering to pay the cost for any NFL stadium flipping from artificial turf to natural grass.

To date, more than 25,000 have signed the #FlipTheTurf petition on Change.org.

NFL Stadiums Split on Artificial Turf or Grass

While the company’s move would seem to be a good business ploy, the players’ motivation seems to come from self-preservation. 

In the NFL in 2021-22, 16 of the teams played on grass or a grass hybrid, the other 16 on artificial surfaces of one form or another. And artificial turf has a troubling history at all levels of play.

More Player Injuries on Artificial Turf

A 2019 study out of Cleveland-based University Hospitals said that high school players – both boys and girls – playing sports on turf fields suffered 58 percent more injuries than those playing on natural grass fields. 

Artificial Sports Turf Then and Now

The first artificial sports playing surface debuted on the infield of the Astrodome in 1966. It was the home of the Houston Astros, the Major League Baseball expansion franchise. They learned in 1965 that grass would not grow well indoors. The success of the artificial grass in the dome led to it being rebranded AstroTurf.

That new infield looked green, but it had none of the forgiveness that grass did. Some players found that the artificial turf gave them more traction, but that traction came at a cost. Both in baseball and football, knee and leg injuries spiked as teams transitioned from grass to artificial turf.

The last half century has seen huge improvements in grass science. And there have been similar improvements in creating artificial turf. Proponents claim that the new stuff is easier on the body than that which came before.  

SoFi Stadium in San Francisco, for example, was created around Helix Matrix Turf, the same stuff that covers the fields used by the Dallas Cowboys and the Houston Texans. This state-of-the-art turf is supposed to have more give in it than in earlier incarnations of artificial surfaces, but not every knee would agree.

The field in Santa Clara that both Kittle and Bosa call home, Levi’s Stadium, has a hybrid Bermuda grass field. That grass is sterile, which for grounds crews means the grass doesn’t produce pollen. And it produces fewer seed heads, meaning it’s easier to keep neatly mowed.

NFL Players Prefer Grass Fields

The war between NFL players, who by a seemingly significant majority prefer to play on grass fields, with or without pollen, and management, which can utilize the field more easily and more often when the turf is artificial, has been going on for decades. 

Deescalation does not seem imminent. 

JC Tretter, the Cleveland Browns center who currently serves as the president of the NFL Players Association, plays home games on bluegrass at First Energy Stadium. He’d like to see the 16 teams currently playing home games on artificial surfaces migrate toward grass.

Using the NFL’s own official injury reports from the seasons 2012-2018, he made a case on the NFLPA’s website that natural grass fields provide a much lower risk for injuries. 

The analysis he put forward suggested players have a 28% overall higher rate of non-contact lower extremity injuries on turf – just the kind that brought down Beckham Jr. 

Tretter also pointed to statistics that said non-contact knee injuries occur at a 32% greater rate. Non-contact foot or ankle injuries happen at a 69% higher rate on artificial fields, he said. 

Support Grows for Grass at NFL Stadiums

A day after that was published, Tretter got some support from the other side. John Lynch, the 49ers’ general manager, would like to see a large majority of NFL teams find fulfillment in natural grass. 

His 49ers have. San Francisco’s experiences with artificial surfaces have been painful. Earlier in that 2020 season, Lynch’s 49ers had lost not just Bosa but also defensive tackle Solomon Thomas to season-ending ACL injuries in that artificial turf game against the Jets. 

A team that won 13 games the year before and would win 10 more a year later, won just six games in 2020 thanks in considerable part to those injuries.

Like Premier League Soccer, Like NFL?

Speaking on the Peacock network, Lynch said the NFL “can’t run from” the results of the use of artificial turf. He applauded Premier League soccer players in Great Britain refusing to play on anything but real grass. “Someday I hope we get there,” he said, adding that it would be “a great step.”

For a kick, you might like to read my article on UK soccer’s devotion to real grass: Hey, Ted Lasso, keep off the soccer grass!

Grass is a Key Issue for NFL Players

Look for that step to get a boost with the next contract negotiations between owners and players. Since the current deal doesn’t run out until 2030, change won’t come quickly. 

Tretter, saying “our occupation is dangerous enough,” went on to say that a move to all-grass fields is one of the players’ key issues.

Raiders, Cardinals Stadiums as Examples

And Lynch isn’t alone among NFL executives in going the natural grass route. The Arizona Cardinals and the Las Vegas Raiders have opted for grass, even though the Cardinals play in a retractable roof stadium and the Raiders call a fixed-roof stadium home.

The Cardinals roll out their grass field on a 40-inch-deep tray sitting on 546 steel wheels set in railroad-like tracks so the grass field can get sun when not in use. The Raiders’ new stadium contains a sliding tray that holds natural grass. It takes 72 motors gearing up to move the grass surface into the sunlight on non-game days.

It’s a start. But it seems clear that this decade in the NFL will be an ongoing battle between the forces of natural grass and the forces of artificial turf. 

And it’s far from clear which side will emerge victorious. 

For now, Beckham Jr.’s injury story won’t stand alone.

Main Photo Credit: Logo and text overlaid on photo of SoFi Stadium / Thank You (21 Millions+) views / CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

John Hickey

John Hickey

John Hickey, contributing writer at LawnStarter, has been around sports as a writer and blogger since the earth was young. He's worked at the Oakland Tribune and Seattle Post-Intelligencer, for AOL/FanHouse and Sports Illustrated. As he writes this, he looks out his window and sees a lawn badly in need of mowing.