Monday, June 29, 2015
It may seem a bit hyperbolic to say, given all the scandal coming out of FIFA in the last month, but the biggest FIFA outrage surrounding the Women’s World Cup has been the use of synthetic turf fields for the competition. This is the first Cup, both men’s and women’s, to be played on artificial surfaces, and the women have complained mightily filing a lawsuit against FIFA to force them to switch to natural grass. The suit was eventually withdrawn and the event went forward using engineered turf. Sadly, two beautiful grass fields were dug up and replaced with artificial turf because FIFA rules require that every pitch be exactly the same. Ironically, if Canada wants to bid to sponsor the men’s Gold Cup or World Cup those two fields will need to be returned to natural grass. Others outside of soccer joined the protest, including Tom Hanks and Kobe Bryant who tweeted a photo of USWNT player Sydney Leroux’s torn up legs after a game. A boycott was considered, but many teams were unwilling because the World Cup is the top stage for players, and many nations get very few chances to compete on such a revered international platform. Other than a successful legal challenge, the women athletes felt they had no choice but to play on the surface dictated by FIFA.
Here in Wisconsin, most of the college pitches and many of the high school fields have switched to artificial grass. It is less difficult to maintain in our weather extremes and extends the outdoor playing season from February into December. Grass would be far too fragile during approximately six months of the year. Some institutions that can afford it have artificial practice fields installing grass on their competition pitch. Clubs conduct fund raisers to be able to construct at least one synthetic surface field and use that fact to tout themselves as a great choice for young players. For many people artificial grass has been seen as a tremendous advance which reduces field maintenance, although not necessarily costs, provides for a longer season, and gives players a consistent pitch. It could be the panacea for a dozen woes, yet professional players are increasingly adamant about refusing to compete on artificial surfaces. David Beckham refused as early as 2007 when the LA Galaxy played the Toronto FC on their engineered field. Which brings us to the Women’s World Cup and FIFA’s decision to require artificial turf in all stadiums and the women protesting that decision.
Artificial turf began in 1965 with the installation of ChemGrass at the Moses Brown School in Providence, Rhode Island. ChemGrass became known as AstroTurf in 1966 when it was laid in Houston’s Astro Dome to much fanfare and great expectations. Artificial grass has undergone several generations and its newest best form, the one used for the World Cup, is called 3G pitch system which has been approved by FIFA. Artificial turf opened the floodgates of indoor facilities which obviously couldn’t support grass so depended on wood and concrete surfaces. Some places used what could only be described as a “carpet” stretched over concrete. It was cheap, and like a carpet it would stretch leaving gaps between seams and ridges where it bunched up. It was unsafe to play on and unsafe to fall on since it rarely had under padding. So having a grass substitute seemed like Nirvana. And for many of the indoor arenas and sports parks it has been created a huge advantage providing year round opportunities for all athletes. Batting cages, lacrosse fields, and soccer all depend upon these engineered products to provide an indoor experience as close to grass as possible.
However, as more and more artificial turf facilities cropped up, the criticism of the surface increased. Players complained of increased injuries, especially ligament damage, joint stress, and turf toe. On top of that, the bristles that substitute for grass tear up the skin with rug burns, cuts, and bruises. Athletes felt that the surface shortened their playing lives, endangering the years of careful training they went through to ensure the safety of their bodies. Football had led the way with artificial turf but now the 21 teams who don’t have full grass fields use a mixture of grass and synthetics called FieldTurf. The surface is fairly close to real grass and requires the same maintenance as regards to watering, mowing, fertilizing and sunlight. New types of turf had to be developed because NFL players had the same complaints that the women soccer players are expressing for this World Cup. FieldTurf eliminates many of the concerns as far as injuries and discomfort. However, FIFA has not approved this product and instead has only endorsed the full 3G turf, which is what is being used in Canada.
Artificial turf also has the problem of absorbing and holding heat especially under direct sunlight. At one of the recent World Cup games the field temperature was 130 degrees Fahrenheit, when the ambient temperature was only in the 80s. It’s ridiculous to play under those conditions. At a tournament Bryce attended in Las Vegas in August, the turf got so hot that the soles of the ARs melted if they stood in one place too long. Eventually, the sponsors had no choice but to change the schedule to play games only in the early morning and after 7 p.m. It’s hot in Vegas in August, but grass fields would have never been unplayable in the heat. They may have withered, but they would not have retained and bounced back heat at intense levels.
Any artificial surface, even FieldTurf, uses granules and sand to give the surface buoyancy and depth. Many of the granules are made from recycled ground tires which contain heavy metals which are recognized carcinogenics. Players get these bits ground into their open cuts and sores, breathe them in, and even “eat” them. Lately, census studies done on athletes who compete primarily with fields holding these pellets has shown a strong link to blood cancers, especially in goalkeepers. No scientific study has been done yet, but the numbers are staggering. Ethan Zohn, a goalkeeper and winner of the third season of Survivor who founded Grassroots Soccer with his winnings, discovered he had Hodgkin’s disease. He didn’t make any connection between his cancer and goalkeeping until he met other keepers with cancer. Goalkeepers are most susceptible to contact with the rubber beads since they spend more time on the ground and have them kicked up into their faces and mouths. He began to keep a list which has grown to over 50 players in five years. He then met Amy Griffen, the assistant coach at the University of Washington, who had discovered on her own the same connection. While visiting a goalkeeper in the hospital getting treatment the nurse stated, “You’re the fourth goalkeeper I’ve hooked up to chemo this week.” Together Zohn and Griffen have been pushing the scientific community to look into these cases and do a controlled study. Additionally under constant sun the fields exude a strong chemical scent which critics say isn’t natural and could be toxic to everyone, fans included.
On the other hand, artificial turf has proponents. Players who suffer from allergies are grateful for the artificial surface which doesn’t aggravate their hay fever and skin reactions from grass. Kids with asthma have far fewer attacks when they play nearly exclusively on artificial surfaces. Despite the rough surface, fake grass does offer a consistently flat surface for play allowing kids to develop dribbling, passing, and running skills with reliable repetition. For the youngest player these plastic turf fields also eliminate the divots and rocks that plague grass fields. For those young kickers the toughest impediment isn’t rug burn, it’s those little bumps and holes that trip kids up and make soccer less fun. The best reason to support the use of artificial turf is that it does extend the playing season either by making outdoor fields playable in most weather or by offering superior indoor facilities with a cushioned playing surface rather than a hard surface. These increased opportunities offer our young players better and more consistent training.
We parents have to read the literature and make the decision on how safe we think the artificial surfaces are for our kids. There are definitely some serious concerns, but there are also advantages. The real issue for the World Cup players is the basic unfairness of the FIFA decision. While no men’s competitions are dictated to be played on artificial turf because the men have the same concerns as the women, FIFA ignored these concerns when it came to the women. Although the ball rolls faster, the surface allows for a quicker pace, and the synthetic fibers can withstand heavy rains, adult players still prefer the natural surface. They like the quirks that different pitches offer because it makes the game not just against the opponent but also against the elements. However for younger players they need the even and all-weather practice surfaces that allow for development of skills which can then be extended with indoor facilities. My sons heartily favor natural over artificial surfaces, but they also appreciated the synthetic pitches. In college they played on artificial turf, and in fact their college field was only the sixth one in the US officially approved by FIFA for FIFA-sanctioned games. So they had the experience of playing on some of the best of the fake. But they also both agreed that the burns, slashes, and cuts they got on those surfaces left scars they carry today, and their ankle stresses were certainly due to the less forgiving underlayment of artificial turf. Robbie suffers from hay fever, so he does agree that he had better breathing when on synthetic surfaces. I’d say the pros and cons are fairly even – it’s a draw for most players but unfortunately a defeat for the World Cup women.