Grass vs Turf: Which is Safer?

Anyone who has played an outdoor sport in their life can relate to this topic and probably has an opinion of their own. Grass or turf? For most people, it is a matter of preference. As a kid, turf fields seem much more professional because most kids play on grass fields that are poorly taken care of. However, once you play in high school, you start to form your own views. In the summer, turf is too hot. In the winter, grass becomes muddy and icy. In both scenarios, the playing field can be hazardous for athletes to run, cut, slide, kick, tackle, and pretty much any other movement needed to play a sport. Rather than asking which surface players prefer to play on, I wonder whether there is a difference in the frequency of injuries on turf compared to on grass.

Comparing the safety of new and improved modern artificial turf fields to grass fields has become a back-and-forth debate over the past few years. Studies have provided evidence supporting and opposing the idea that turf fields are more dangerous than grass fields. According to Justin Shaginaw, an athletic trainer for the US soccer federation, a 2011 study found a higher frequency of ankle injuries on turf for football, soccer, and rugby players. Also, a 2012 study showed that more college football players suffered ACL injuries on turf than on grass. On the other hand, both a 2010 study on college football players and a 2013 study on female college soccer players showed a higher frequency of all injuries on grass than on turf. However, according to John Brenkus in one of his Sport Science videos, recent studies have shown that turf reduces the risk for injury by over 10%, yet turf increases stress on the ACL joint by about 45%. Brenkus even talked about a study covering over 2,600 NFL games, saying players were 67% more likely to sprain their ACL on turf than on grass.

So what makes one surface more dangerous to play on than another? According to Mark Drakos, most scientists believe there are two features of turf and grass that affect injury rates: the coefficient of friction and the coefficient of restitution. The coefficient of friction is exactly what it sounds like, how much friction the surface creates. For instance, a low coefficient of friction would cause people to slip a lot, whereas a high coefficient of friction creates a stickier surface. Therefore, surfaces with higher coefficients of friction cause more ACL injuries because there is not as much “give” on the turf or grass. Similarly, a higher coefficient of restitution will, in general, cause more injuries. Basically, the coefficient of restitution means how hard the surface is and is measured with a G-max value. For instance, concrete has a very high G-max value. Consequently, certain grass and turf fields have higher G-max values, which lead to a higher rate of concussions and other contact injuries.

Although grass and turf fields might cause a similar rate of injuries, some scientists believe there is one feature of turf that makes it much more dangerous to play on. No, I’m not talking about sprained ankles, pulled muscles, or torn ligaments, I am talking about cancer. According to Hannah Rappleye, the crumb rubber in artificial turf is made up of bits of tire that contain carcinogens and chemicals that could cause cancer. There is evidence that exposure to benzene, carbon black, and lead, among other substances, can cause cancer, but proving this is more difficult than it seems. Crumb rubber has tens of thousands of different tires from different brands, making it difficult for scientists to research the relationship between crumb rubber and cancer.

Personally, in my experiences playing soccer, football, and even baseball on grass and turf fields, I enjoy playing on turf more, but am definitely more sore after playing on turf than I am on grass. However, assuming the weather is normal and both turf and grass fields are well taken care of, it is a tough choice. In a few years, the distinction between injury rates on turf fields and on grass fields should be more clear. Nevertheless, with the information discovered up to this date, I would prefer grass for a few reasons. Primarily, grass may cause more common injuries such as ankle sprains and muscle strains, but turf fields seem more likely to cause more serious injuries like ACL and MCL tears. Also, although this may end up being nothing, I would rather avoid any potential risk of cancer if I had the chance. The higher risk for common injuries would be worth it compared to risking an ACL injury, or worse, getting cancer. So there it is, grass fields win. To conclude, enjoy this video from The Comebacks of someone tearing his ACL, great scene.

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1 thought on “Grass vs Turf: Which is Safer?

  1. Jarrod T Skole

    As an ex athlete I used to love playing on turf fields, mostly because my home soccer fields was grass and wasn’t always maintained. I never though that the two different surfaces could cause such bad injuries but now after reading this I am remembering one of my good friends tearing his acl on a turf field. Its a shame to think that maybe if we were on grass that day he never would have torn it. But i did alway like playing on grass when for the fact that if you ever fell you wouldn’t get turf burn.

    I wonder if getting turf burn then having those little rubber pieces in your open skin could cause cancer. Its terrible that doctors can not find out if the rubber pieces really do cause cancer due to all the chemicals, but maybe it would just be safer for everyone to play on grass instead of turf. Plus grass is a softer surface to land on for hard hitting sports like lacrosse and football, which could lead to less injuries in those sports as well.

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