Turf Wars on the Football Field

Football match in open field, players wearing uniforms, 1936

You might think this post will be about the battle between the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49’ers in Superbowl XLVII (2013). This post is not about the players or the teams, but about a part of the game. Plain and simple, I am writing about the turf grass (natural and synthetic) because in football, turf (i.e. grass) is a necessary and significant aspect of the game.

Debate on the advantages and disadvantages of natural vs. synthetic turf grass on football fields and other sports fields have been argued since synthetic turf was first used. In fact, in 1971 there was a Congressional hearing investigating product safety that  included artificial turf as one of the products under investigation (see Consumer Product Safety Act of 1971. Hearings, Ninety-second Congress, first session or CIS 72-H501-22).  Over the years, the NFL, the NCAA, the NFLPA, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, Congress, and a multitude of scientists charged with investigating the matter, have contributed to the ongoing discussion, even as the nature of synthetic grass itself continues to change. 

Football game, 1902

Natural Turf Grasses- There are about 10,000 species of grasses worldwide, but only a few of these are  considered suitable for use as turf grass—and only six species, and their hybrids, are used on sports fields. In order to be a worthy candidate, the grass must have certain qualities: it must be tolerant of stress and traffic, it must be able to recover rapidly, and it must have a high tensile (capable of tension) and sod strength.

Grasses used for turf—in fact all grasses—are divided into two types: warm season and cool season grasses. Cool season grasses grow best in the spring and fall, but they can go dormant in the heat of the summer. Warm season grasses start growing in the late spring and usually grow best in the summer months.

 Cold Season Turf Grass Varities

  • Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis), typically the most preferred turf grass
  • Tall fescue (Festuca arundinacea)
  • Perennial ryegrass (Lolium perenne)
  • Creeping bentgrass (Agrostis stolonifera L.)

 Warm Season Turf Grass Varities

  • Bermudagrass (Cynodon spp)
  • Seashore paspalum (Paspalum vaginatum)

During play on natural grass, you can observe certain damaging characteristic to the football field. If it it’s raining, you will get mud and puddles of water. You will also notice stressed areas, divots, gouges, and uneven surfaces. There is dust and players’ uniforms are smeared with grass and dirt stains. There is a great deal of maintenance that goes into keeping a natural turf field in good working condition, and this might be one reason why some have chosen synthetic or artificial turf.

Author William Johnson in the Sports Illustrated article “Goodby [sic] to Three Yards and A Cloud of Dust ( January 1969: 37-39) sums up the switch from natural to artificial turf “natural conditions governing football will have passed from the hand of God into the rubber glove of the chemist.”


Synthetic (Artificial) Turf- In the 1950s the Ford Foundation and Monsanto Industries joined together to create artificial playing surfaces. The first artificial surface, called Chemgrass, was marketed in 1964. Artificial turf is a fabricated surface made from polymers, resins, and padding (today they also add natural sources like sand, rocks and even real grass)  that attempts to simulate natural turf. Generally speaking it can withstand harsh conditions like stress, traffic, and weather, though damage can occur, it can remain consistent throughout the game (and season). If it rains, the water runs or drains off, so there are no puddles. Players on artificial turf need special shoes, the cleats used in natural grass will not do. Some even say that the player’s speed increases on artificial turf, which in turn may equal harder collisions.

And then it happened- the Houston Astrodome- first domed stadium in U.S.- was having dire problems with its natural turf grass. The grass was dying, and the owners found a solution to their problem in Chemgrass. At the end of the 1966 baseball season Chemgrass–or AstroTurf as it had been re-named– was installed.

Synthetic turf became increasingly popular in the 1960s and 1970s and other companies joined the artificial turf business- Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing (3M) created Tartan Turf, and American Biltrite created PolyTurf. Today, advancements in artificial turf continue to be made with the goal of improving player performance and safety.There are even new types of synthetic grass (e.g. Desso Grassmaster) that combine both natural and synthetic grass.

According to the Synthetic Turf Council, there are “6,000 multi-use synthetic turf sports fields… in North American schools, colleges, parks and professional sports stadiums.  About half of all NFL teams currently play their games on synthetic turf and, since 2003, over 70 FIFA U-17 and U-20 World Cup matches have been played on synthetic turf soccer fields.”

Waterfront, New Orleans, Louisiana. Photograph by Carol Highsmith.

Tracking the use of natural vs. artificial turf is tricky because stadiums are constantly improving, remodeling, and rebuilding. While the Houston Oilers were the first to play on artificial turf in 1968 at the Astrodome, the first NFL stadium to install artificial turf was the Philadelphia Eagles’ Franklin Field in 1969. Of the 31 NFL stadiums (NY Giants and Jets both play at Met Life Stadium) that are in use today, 15 use natural grasses and the trend is to either replace the old-style synthetic turf with the next generation or switch back to grass.  In case you’re wondering, Superbowl XLVII which will be played at the New Orleans Mercedes Benz Superdome is carpeted with artificial turf, specifically UBU – Speed Series – S5-M.

I will leave you with the opinion of the great Vince Lombardi, “I think artificial turf tends to make a good athlete a little better and a poor athlete a little poorer- if you get my meaning- because the surface is even all over.” (Sports Illustrated, Jan. 27, 1969: 38)

Needing more SuperBowl related content? In Custodia Legis, our Law Library’s blog, posted A Healthy Dose of Superbowl Ads . In this post you will be surprised to learn that the U.S. and New Zealand  are the only two industrialized nations that allow “direct-to-consumer advertising” (DTCA) for prescription-only medication.

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