Turf wars: NFL players and owners are at odds over replacing artificial surfaces with grass

Turf wars: NFL players and owners are at odds over replacing artificial surfaces with grass

On TV or from the stands, it’s nearly impossible to tell one NFL field from another without the colorful team logos painted in the end zones.

But an increasing number of players and coaches, including the 49ers’ George Kittle and Nick Bosa, are asking the NFL to take a closer look into the league’s growing turf war.

The merits and safety concerns of artificial turf vs. natural grass have been debated since the Philadelphia Eagles became the first NFL team to play on AstroTurf in 1969 – three years after it made its debut in the Houston Astrodome. But with salaries and team values continuing to skyrocket, the stakes have never been higher for the players or the league.

“No one knows the beating that our bodies take on turf more than us — the players,” former 49ers defensive end Solomon Thomas posted on Twitter late last season. “The sport is violent enough. We shouldn’t be taking more damage from the field, too.”

San Francisco 49ers’ Solomon Thomas (94) is carted off the field 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/Corey Sipkin) 

There have been improvements to synthetic turf over the years to make the surfaces safer. But they are harder than natural grass and don’t provide as much give to ankles, knees and other body parts.

Of the 30 NFL stadiums, 16 have natural grass. The two shared stadiums (MetLife Stadium by the Giants and the Jets, and SoFi Stadium by the Rams and the Chargers) both have synthetic turf, so half the teams in the NFL play on artificial surfaces.

Grass fields, of course, won’t eliminate injuries — or be completely headache-free. The issues with the grass at Levi’s Stadium when it opened in 2014 and for several seasons after made headlines. But the surface at the 49ers’ home field is now considered one of the best in the league, even getting a thumbs up from “The Sodfather,” George Toma, the legendary groundskeeper who has helped prepare the field for every Super Bowl.

Before Super Bowl LVI a year and a half ago, Kittle shared a petition from Change.org calling for the NFL to switch to natural surfaces in all its stadiums.

“I’ve been saying, artificial turf feels like playing on cement. It’s time to play smarter, not harder! Help us #FlipTheTurf by signing the petition” Kittle wrote.

The game was played on artificial turf at SoFi Stadium, the Rams’ new $5 billion facility in Inglewood. During the game, Rams star receiver Odell Beckham Jr. tore his ACL when his leg caught on the surface. The injury prompted many NFL players to reach out on social media.

Wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. of the Los Angeles Rams reacts after an injury during the second quarter of the NFL Super Bowl LVI football game against the Cincinnati Bengals at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, on Sunday, February 13, 2022. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG) 

Niners wide receiver Deebo Samuel tagged the NFL in a tweet that said, “Turf should be banned.” And Bosa linked to the petition and shared some of his own injury horror story, saying in a tweet, “Every player is one play away from altering their career forever when playing on turf. I experienced the bad side of this and it could have been avoided.”

Bosa’s only Twitter activity since he suffered a season-ending torn ACL in the second game of the 2020 season on the MetLife Stadium turf has been related to stadium surfaces.

Technological advances have made turf safer over the years and more similar to grass than carpet. But natural grass is overwhelmingly the surface preferred by the players, who say they feel more fatigued and score after playing on synthetic surfaces. The NFL Players Association also points to a poll it conducted in which 90 percent of the players who responded said playing on turf would likely shorten their career.

The NFL has pushed back on the call for surface changes, saying recent data shows the difference in injuries on grass and artificial surfaces is minimal. But the players scored a minor victory heading into this season.

Two stadiums – MetLife Stadium (shared by the New York Giants and New York Jets) and Ford Field (Detroit Lions) have replaced slit film turf, considered the most potentially dangerous of the synthetic surfaces because gaps in the material that can catch players’ cleats, with different synthetic surfaces.

That still leaves four NFL stadiums using slit film turf – Paycor Stadium (Cincinnati Bengals), Caesars Superdome (New Orleans Saints), Lucas Oil Stadium (Indianapolis Colts) and U.S. Bank Stadium (Minnesota Vikings). The 49ers play the Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium on Oct. 23.

NFLPA president JC Tretter has been outspoken about the players’ desire for the NFL to mandate natural grass surfaces for all of its facilities.

A switch to grass would be expensive. Some estimates suggest it would cost nearly a billion dollars for a stadium that uses artificial turf to go natural. Teams playing in cold weather or enclosed stadiums would have to resod multiple times during the season.

The 49ers have been among the most vocal teams in the drive to go natural in large part because of injuries the team has suffered on turf over the years.

San Francisco’s 2020 season was ruined in large part after back-to-back visits to MetLife Stadium in New Jersey resulted in injuries to more than a half-dozen key players on what the 49ers later called “sticky” turf.

In a Week 2 game against the Jets, Bosa and Thomas suffered season-ending knee injuries, while quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (ankle) and running backs Raheem Mostert (knee) and Tevin Coleman (knee) also got hurt. A week later against the Giants, tight end Jordan Reed (knee and ankle) and cornerback Emmanuel Moseley (concussion) were injured on the same turf. The 49ers didn’t even risk playing Kittle, who was recovering from a previous ankle injury.

EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY – SEPTEMBER 20: Nick Bosa #97 of the San Francisco 49ers is carted off the field after sustaining an injury during the first half against the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium on September 20, 2020 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images) 

A year later, in the 2021 opener, cornerback Jason Verrett tore his ACL on the turf at Detroit. And last season, Moseley suffered a season-ending injury when his knee buckled on the turf at Carolina’s Bank of America Stadium.

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“Turf is turf. It is what it is,” Kittle told reporters after Moseley’s injury in Carolina. “I’d much rather play on grass. That’s why I love (49ers CEO) Jed York. We have the nicest grass field in the NFL. Week in and week out, our practice fields are the nicest grass fields. And we have the nicest game field.”

It’s not just the players calling for change. Seattle Seahawks head coach Peter Carroll suggested the NFL “seriously” consider a switch to grass after star receiver D.K. Metcalf suffered a non-contact knee injury on SoFi Stadium’s turf.

“We’ve got to do what’s right, and we’ve got to do what’s safest for the players and we’ve got to make those choices,” Carroll told reporters. “I would pound on the drum for that.”

San Francisco 49ers’ George Kittle (85), scores his second touchdown of the third quarter against the Washington Commanders and celebrates with Brandon Aiyuk (11) at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., Saturday, Dec. 24, 2022. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group) 

Time will tell if owners will listen to those calls for change. But for now, the 49ers are more than happy to let the grass grow at Levi’s Stadium.

“I know how much everyone prefers grass,” 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan told reporters last season. “… I can’t tell you how big of a difference it makes for us. I’m glad that we don’t have to deal with that stuff in our stadium.”