It’s not just about how fake it looks or how much it hurts to play on.
Artificial turf is certainly a godsend to anyone who lacks the necessary environment and resources to maintain a spread of natural grass — most of all because it is comparatively cheaper over the long term and needs less maintenance. As a result, artificial turf has contributed greatly to the proliferation and development of the global sports industry, but at a cost that is still largely ignored — if not actively denied.
When Monsanto, the same company that brought you Agent Orange, rolled out the first batch of Chemgrass in 1964, headlining stadiums like Houston’s Astrodome could finally bypass the difficulties of maintaining natural grass cover in less than ideal conditions. On the flip side, minor clubs around the world were able to reach the nominal level of respectability that came with having a consistent quality of pitch.
Football clubs without the necessary ingredients for grass or the funds to sustain teams of groundskeepers were able to outfit pretty much any regulation-sized indoor or outdoor space with an analogue to real grass that was largely cheaper to maintain and stood up better to high-frequency use.
Stadiums could be used for a range of sporting events all year long without needing time for natural turf to recover. The costs of maintenance could then go towards improving other facilities, purchasing star power, or developing youth talent — a sea-change that will continue to elevate many a small-town team.
The one-time expenditure of artificial turf may still entail significantly higher upfront costs than natural grass, but the maintenance savings over serviceable lifetimes typically measured in years makes it a cost-efficient alternative. Many sporting venues around the world have even replaced perfectly suitable spreads of grass with the artificial variety for purely financial reasons — much to the dismay of players.
Why athletes hate it
It changes the way the game is played. Also, maybe injuries.
The appeal of AstroTurf and its many variants has led to a wider diversity of pitches that is now another element on the list of tactical and strategic considerations: everything from the way the ball behaves to the way players position themselves changes when teams accustomed to natural grass encounter an artificial pitch at an away game.
Players have likened playing on artificial turf to playing on concrete, reporting higher levels of fatigue and soreness than when playing on natural grass. Injuries such as thermal burns and turf toe are apparently more common, as even the modern iterations of artificial turf are still not kind to players’ bodies. There are also debatable fears of pathogens accumulating in higher concentrations if the turf is not regularly sanitised.
Despite three generations of development over the course of almost 60 years producing increasingly flamboyant brand names and improved varieties of artificial grass that are nearly indistinguishable from nature’s own, discerning groundskeepers and players alike still agree that football on natural grass is the way the game is meant to be played. Elite players still expect to play on natural turf — which is why you still see real grass on the pitch at the most moneyed of fixtures.
Why athletes should hate it
It apparently makes people sick.
The second and third generations of artificial turf were born out of negative feedback from athletes who cited its tacky appearance and lack of cushioning — and each generation has resulted in venues switching to artificial turf and back to natural grass in time with the various improvements.
To address the obvious aesthetic problem, manufacturers looked at refining the way the fibres were extruded during production, adding fibres of varying designs, a silicone coating to provide the turf with a more natural appearance, plus some questionable chemicals to streamline production.
In response to complaints of hard landings, manufacturers introduced infills of sand, of styrene butadiene rubber particles, and later on, mixtures of both. That second innovation involved what was then regarded as an environmental revolution. Old car tyres with nowhere else to go could be shredded and the resulting crumbs put to use as infill for third-generation artificial turf.
The health implications of sowing a football pitch with road debris weren’t a topic of conversation until 2014, when Amy Griffin, a women’s football coach at the University of Washington, started noticing that a high proportion of athletes were getting diagnosed with cancer — and despite only constituting one tenth of any team, a disproportionate number of them were goalkeepers.
With all the leaping and rolling around they tend to do, goalkeepers spend more time being exposed to the pitch, and the fact that most of the afflictions were cancers of the blood pointed to environmental causes. Even with that obvious correlation, when 84 of the world’s foremost female footballers took FIFA and the Canadian Football Association to court over the use of artificial turf at the Women’s World Cup in 2015, it was on the grounds of gender discrimination.
Despite this particular legal challenge enjoying some high-profile support, the suit was inexplicably dropped and FIFA concluded, to the delight of the Synthetic Turf Council, that there was nothing wrong with artificial turf. Since then, FIFA has continued to push artificial turf as a logistical and administrative miracle — and the health debate has shifted from whether there are any toxins in artificial turf to the likelihood of those toxins entering the bloodstream through ingestion or skin contact.
In the meantime, some nefarious toxins have been found in artificial turf samples as recently as October of 2019, and the implications extend to the extrusion of the fibres, the backing material, and even how everything gets recycled in Malaysia.
So to recap: it costs more upfront, but it’s cheaper in the long run; it looks terrible, but it’s a last resort; it’s great for teaching fundamentals, but players hate it; it might be making people sick, but don’t let FIFA catch you saying that. Artificial turf makes football accessible, but would you roll around in it?
Kevin Eichenberger lives in constant fear of artificial turf — but he has one square metre of the stuff on his porch.