Turf War

If you’ve been following the FIFA Women’s World Cup these past few weeks (go USA), you’ve probably heard talk about turf, or more specifically, artificial turf. This is the first World Cup to ever be played on artificial turf, and many players are not happy about it. Allegations of gender discrimination were made, and a lawsuit was filed and later dropped. What I found myself wondering, and you may be too, is why make a big deal over turf?

The grass is always greener when it’s fake

For thousands of years, humans played sports on regular old grass. But when roofed sports stadiums started being built in the 1960’s, a fairly significant problem arose – grass needs sunlight to grow. After a hilarious experiment with painting dead grass green, the Houston Astrodome installed a brand new synthetic turf called ChemGrass in 1966. The turf was renamed AstroTurf soon afterwards by its inventors, the chemical company Monsanto, and was soon installed in many similar stadiums nationwide. Even outdoor fields that received plenty of sunlight were soon being replaced with AstroTurf as owners realized that this fake grass never needed to be cut, watered or replanted, and would stay usable and attractive in any kind of climate conditions. In 1970, the commissioner of the National Football League predicted every team would soon be playing on “weather-defying phony grass,” as the newspaper article described it.

AstroTurf usage increased up through the ’80’s until nearly 2/3 of NFL teams, at least a dozen baseball teams and a handful of English soccer teams were playing on it. Eventually, players and fans began to react negatively to AstroTurf for its effects on the game and their health (discussed below), and many fields were transitioned back to natural grass or a newer version of artificial turf called FieldTurf.

The Mechanics

There were several reasons that sports teams ditched AstroTurf, but they all boiled down to the fact that playing on it was almost nothing like playing on natural grass.

AstroTurf was essentially a nylon carpet laid over concrete. It got much hotter than grass, so much so that baseball players standing on it for long periods in hot weather got their cleats melted. It was hard and springy, meaning balls that struck it went much higher than on normal grass. This same factor meant that players who hit it didn’t fare too well either. And the nylon surface was much easier to grip – a boon for some looking to run faster, but a major stress on the knees of many players, as a 1992 study in The American Journal of Sports Medicine showed.

Modern artificial turf (nowadays usually a version of FieldTurf), is more complex. Individual grass-like fibers are attached to a hard polymer base, with a layer of rubber granules simulating the cushioning dirt of a natural grass field.

The Controversy Continues

While modern-day turf is undoubtedly much better to play on, the jury is still out on how safe it really is. A 2013 study in Portugal found that amateur soccer players were injured at higher rates on artificial turf than on grass (though other studies have found no difference in injury rates).

Artificial turf was never popular in soccer, and FIFA, the sport’s global governing body, never allowed it to be used for World Cup matches before this year. But natural grass fields are difficult to grow in Canada, where the Women’s World Cup is being held this year, so FIFA bit the bullet and signed off on it.

The reaction was swift.

“There is no player in the world, male or female, who would prefer to play on artificial grass,” U.S. forward Abby Wambach told the Washington Post. “There’s soccer on grass, and then there is soccer on turf.”

Forward Sydney Leroux described playing on turf as “running on cement” to Vice Sports, and her celebrity friend Kobe Bryant even tweeted a picture of her bruised and bloodied legs after playing on turf to prove the abrasiveness of the surface.

FIFA was accused of sexism – not a hard allegation to make for an organization whose president once suggested women’s soccer would be more popular if the players wore “tighter shorts.” A lawsuit was filed by dozens of soccer players, though it was dropped in January.

FIFA hasn’t ruled out using turf again, though the issue is largely moot for the foreseeable future – all three of the coming World Cups (2018, 2019 and 2022) will use grass fields.

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