Is Turf Really a Better Way to Prevent Concussions?

Chicago sports fans are well aware of the complaints that Bears players and opponents have made over the years about the grass conditions at Soldier Field, responsibility for which is some split between the owners of the field (the Chicago Park District) and its tenant (the Chicago Bears). Often complaints come from wide receivers losing their footing on routes from former Bears receiver Rashied Davis ("It's a horrible, horrible surface") to current Dolphin and former Packer Greg Jennings ("probably worst in the league") due to the uneven grass surface.

Similar complaints on footing at Soldier Field have been echoed in the press from all positions including Brian Urlacher, Jay Cutler and Robbie Gould with a promise even coming from Mayor Rahm Emanuel last October that the playing surface at the stadium was being worked on. One possible solution to the natural grass problems that appear to plague Soldier Field is to make the change to artificial turf.

While natural grass is not without its problems as a football playing surface, artificial turf can more likely lead to some injuries as well, such as "turf toe." A new injury question has emerged relative to playing surfaces, though: Can the playing surface contribute to a concussion?

In April of this year, a contract was awarded by the Arlington (Va.) County School Board for the construction of a new synthetic turf field at Washington–Lee High School at a cost of nearly $700,000. The contract, awarded to Arlington, Va.–based GTR Turf Inc., was promoted by the school board as a necessary purchase "to meet the ever–growing demand from athletes of all ages in Arlington for places to play team sports." Consistent with the current trend in synthetic turf installations, the new Washington–Lee field will feature an underlying shock–absorbing pad.

In an article from the county announcing the board's decision to install a new synthetic turf, one claim in particular stands out from a concussion–prevention perspective. According to the counties' website, the shock–absorbing padding "has been proven to reduce the number and severity of concussions. Arlington County (is) committed to reducing concussions in young athletes and plan to use shock–absorbing pads under fields where contact sports, such as football, are played."

While the counties' safety goals are laudable, any product–liability attorney defending a future lawsuit against the county would want to make sure that reduction of concussions and the severity of such head trauma is documented and even provable.

In an era that has seen numerous lawsuits filed against parties that have any potential involvement with collisions that are traditionally associated with concussion — e.g., claims against helmet manufacturer Riddell — this assertion includes a significant amount of confidence. Current analysis on the safety considerations of synthetic turf suggests a much more cautious approach than the one represented in the Arlington County announcement.

Upon proper installation, a synthetic turf field with an underlying padded layer allows the playing surface to replicate optimal natural turf fields in terms of hardness. The hardness of a field is measured on a G–max rating scale; for instance, professionally maintained natural grass fields, like Soldier Field, should have a G–max score of 90 to 110 Gs (and possibly lower).

Prior to creation and use of shock–absorbing pads under synthetic fields, the artificial surfaces were placed over a stone or concrete base and could feature hardness measurements of more than 165 to 200 Gs.

The new padding system, however, allows synthetic turf fields to register around 90 to 100 Gs, figures that are in line with natural grass. That level of a hardness reduction can possibly reduce the likelihood of severe head injury by as much as 50 percent. While it is generally accepted that a lower G–max rating can equate to safer playing surfaces from an impact standpoint; use of the pads are tied to a significant caveat.

Regardless of the underlying material used for an artificial playing surface, the safety benefits of the field (not taking into account playing technique or player equipment) can only be generated if the field is properly maintained through the course of its life. Over time, synthetic fields lose the amount of crumb rubber infill that comes with original installation. In addition to shock–absorbing pads under the field, crumb rubber is essential to ensure that synthetic surfaces feature a safe hardness level.

As one can imagine, hardness recordings are prevalent at the professional level; e.g. such testing is mandated before every NFL game. Further, one would not be surprised to find hardness recordings drop commensurate with the level of competition.

A recent investigation conducted by an Indiana news team found that some poorly maintained synthetic turf fields in central Indiana received "little or no safety testing after they [we]re installed." One field measured a G–max score of 225 Gs, which generates a recommendation that "no future athletic play be allowed on that field until remediation events are taken." Other fields had never been tested since installation.

Fortunately, the remediation costs for synthetic turf field owners are relatively affordable versus natural grass care and artificial turf manufacturers are being more proactive and vocal to their customers about the need for remediation, including adding additional crumb rubber.

Synthetic surface manufacturers are also thinking about concussions on a more macro level. Brock International, for example, has partnered with the Sports Legacy Institute in a collaborative mission to help "solve the escalating concussion problem." The Sports Legacy Institute is a nonprofit organization founded to "advance the study, treatment and prevention of brain trauma."

Some reports indicate that at least 10 percent of concussions are directly tied to the hardness of the playing surface. Therefore, any measure that can help reduce the risks and severity that impacts with the field can have on athletes' heads is likely worth the investment.

So, as long as the hardness of the playing surface is kept at or below acceptable limits for play with adequate maintenance, artificial turf remains a viable option for the Bears down the line, or at least the greener "grass" that any given losing team at Soldier Field can point to for future salvation.

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