NFL addresses ongoing turf debate, rekindled player outrage after Aaron Rodgers injury

New York Jets quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ season-ending injury refueled a debate over playing surfaces across the league. After Rodgers tore his Achilles against the Buffalo Bills on “Monday Night Football,” some of his former teammates shared strong anti-turf sentiments on social media.

Jets coach Robert Saleh said in a news conference Monday that if Rodgers’ injury were non-contact, he would be more concerned about the turf at MetLife Stadium and “I think that was trauma-induced” — but that he knows “the players prefer grass.” Rodgers was sacked by Bills outside linebacker Leonard Floyd when he suffered the injury.

This offseason, MetLife Stadium’s turf was changed from a slit-film surface to a multilayer dual-polymer monofilament fiber called FieldTurf Core. Slit-film surfaces, which are created by cutting “blades” into a single piece of material, resemble netting upon close view designed to keep infill in place. Players have referred to such turf as “grabby,” where a monofilament surface can be “harder and faster” but designed to release cleats.

Some Jets players reiterated their preference for natural grass Monday night, but some did note that the new field at MetLife felt like an improvement to the previous slit-film surface.

The NFL found a significant statistical difference in non-contact injury rates on slit-film surfaces versus natural grass and even other synthetic surfaces from 2018-21. League spokespeople cited data acquired through IQVIA, a health technology company jointly appointed by the NFL and NFLPA and compensated by the league.

The NFL also maintained throughout 2022 that it found a “statistically insignificant” difference between injuries on synthetic versus natural grass surfaces during the 2021 season, citing the same data gathered by IQVIA. Players and personnel across the league have said they don’t trust the NFL’s data, or believe it lacks clarity and transparency.


Inside the fight over NFL playing surfaces

Asked Tuesday afternoon about the renewed outcry over playing surfaces, NFL executive vice president Jeff Miller said the league had not found a difference in the injury rate for Achilles injuries on natural grass surfaces versus synthetic. Miller cited data collected on the matter since 2015.

“It is always difficult when talking about Achilles injuries, which are such substantial injuries, to see two players in the first week go down with those,” Miller said, referring to Rodgers and to Baltimore Ravens running back J.K. Dobbins. Dobbins tore his Achilles tendon Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium, which has a grass surface. “So that is an important area to continue to research, but because an injury happens on a surface doesn’t mean that injury was caused by that surface. And in this case, we haven’t seen a data difference for Achilles injuries. So there’s a lot more work to do. We don’t want those injuries in the game.”

The NFL and NFLPA meet with manufacturers of artificial turf twice a year to examine injury rates on those surfaces.

Many players believe that the less forgiving turf fields lead to serious injuries, especially non-contact injuries. Players across the NFL have been outspoken in their belief that owners are motivated by money, because synthetic surfaces enable them to save on long-term maintenance costs and to better host non-football events such as concerts without having to deal with traffic damage on the playing surfaces. The NFL has denied such claims.

The outrage from NFL players over playing surfaces has also flared up as major soccer tournaments either are hosted at stadiums, or some stadiums prepare plans to host the upcoming World Cup.

SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles, which is shared by the Los Angeles Rams and the Chargers, switched to a natural grass playing surface for the CONCACAF Gold Cup over the summer. Their football surface is a synthetic material called Hellas Matrix turf. Last year, Bank of America Stadium hosted an exhibition match between MLS club Charlotte FC and English Premier League team Chelsea, and installed a natural grass surface for the match before switching back to an artificial surface for football season.

NFL stadiums that wish to host FIFA tournaments such as the World Cup must adhere to the rigorous field testing standards of its Quality Programme. Any stadium with an artificial surface hosting a competitive FIFA match must meet Programme standards — or switch to approved grass, at least temporarily.

On a club level, most top European leagues, like the English Premier League, choose to play on natural surfaces “mostly following players’ preferences,” Programme director Mickaël Benetti said last winter.

There is only one league-standardized test required to approve the use of NFL playing surfaces: firmness. This evaluation, called a Clegg test, is conducted by each team’s own field management lead and reported to the league in the days ahead of a scheduled game. Individual team personnel must also check infill.

Miller has reiterated that the NFL and NFLPA are looking to lower injury rates on both natural grass and synthetic surfaces. Using the data collected by IQVIA and a group of biomechanical engineers, the league studies variables such as cleat type, weather, type of movement when the injury occurs and more. IQVIA deploys an electronic health record system to all 32 NFL teams and relies on them to self-report injuries. IQVIA also monitors participation data (snap-to-snap “football exposure”), game statistics, player tracking, stadium surface and footwear.

Asked Tuesday whether the NFL has the ability to determine specifically how much a playing surface factors into an Achilles tear, Miller said, “When we take a look at major injuries that lead to substantial time loss, and therefore are our priorities from a research perspective — things like Achilles, ACLs, high ankle sprains — a team of biomechanical engineers will study on a frame-by-frame basis those injuries to better understand what we can about them and what the contributing factors are.”

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