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Turf Monster: how do the new Portage Northern turf facilities contribute to injuries?

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The building of Huskie Stadium and Huskie Field, the $144 million turf football and soccer fields, has given Portage Northern some of the best high school sports facilities in the area. However, there have been studies done tying turf fields to increased injury risks. While multiple studies have suggested that turf fields are just as safe as grass (John Brenkus, Sports Science), others have suggested that turf leads to higher risk of ankle and knee injuries (Justin Saginaw, US Soccer Federation). Specifically, these studies have shown that turf increases stress on the ACL joint by 45%, and, in the NFL, ACL sprains are 67% more likely to occur on turf than grass. With such mixed messages on the true effect of turf on injury risk, how has PN been affected by the transition to turf?

Junior Cam Adams, who plays both football and soccer on the new turf fields, tore his ACL and both menisci playing indoor soccer on a turf field. Adams, however, does not blame the turf for his injury. “I’ve played at soccerzone a thousand times and never got injured before this,” Adams said. “It was more of a weird play not so much the turf.” According to him, turf fields are actually safer than grass. “It [turf] helps with grip and will not slide like wet grass fields,” Adams explains. The increases safety of Huskie Field as opposed to indoor soccer facilities may be due to the special safety precautions taken when the field was built.

According to athletic director Chris Riker, the idea that turf facilities are more dangerous than grass is due to old, antiquated turf technology such as Astroturf. “Turf field are no more safe or dangerous than grass fields,” said Riker “it’s all about how the surface is cared for and maintained.” While the study showing that ACL injuries are 67% more likely to occur on turf playing fields in the NFL, where surface safety technology is most advanced, suggests that the idea that only early turf models can create injury risk, it is important to note that PN’s turf does include safety technology such as shock pads, which decrease the turf’s g-max rating, leading to softer turf. This softer turf is recognized by athletes who play on the field, including Junior Jonah Pilnick of the soccer team, who said that PN’s turf is softer than most other turf fields.

While Pilnick does recognize how advanced the turf of Huskie Field is, he believes that the turf fields have caused more leg injuries in his teammates. “I don’t think that having more injuries this year and last is a coincidence,” Pilnick said. “I think this weak planting of each step has caused odd movements in other parts of the leg like the knee.” This claim that turf negatively affects knee health is supported by studies, most of which emphasize turf’s affect on the ACL. Despite this perceived injury risk, Pilnick is happy to be playing on turf soccer fields. “The injuries are something to consider, but it doesn’t overtake the benefits we get in the game,” he said.

Freshman Zander Crooks, who has struggled with knee injuries through both the soccer and basketball season, also claims that turf increases injury risk. “I think a lot of injuries happen more on turf than grass,” Crooks said. “You get an ankle sprain on grass, but on turf that can be ACL or MCL tear.” Despite this assertion that injuries can become worse on turf than grass, Crooks still enjoys playing on the turf of Huskie Field. “I think PN soccer field are great… but more injuries are prone to happen,” Crooks said.

Not only are the statistics about whether or not turf fields increase injury risk, so are the opinions of PN athletes. However, one thing is constant: the athletes enjoy playing more on the new turf facilities than grass. Also, turf facilities trump grass in terms of preparation, maintenance, and bad weather conditions. The possibility of turf’s increased pressure on legs and knees cannot be ignored, and players and coaches must be careful to adjust between games on natural grass and PN turf. However, overall, this risk is not great enough to warrant any major worries.

Increased ACL and leg injuries are not the only potential health hazards that turf fields have been tied to. There have been claims that the black rubber used in turf fields can be linked to cancer. While a first glance at the data may seem to suggest that turf fields do contribute to cancer. According to CNN, a study done in Washington showed that many soccer players who play on turf, especially goalkeepers, are contracting cancer. However, the cancer rate of turf soccer athletes was still lower than the expected rates for Washington citizens. Also, Portage Northern has specifically looked into the allegations of a link between turf and cancer, and worked to make the black rubber pellets as safe and non-toxic as possible. “To be certain we were providing the safest environment possible to our students, we used EPDM rubber infill- often times referred to as “virgin” rubber,” said athletic director Chris Riker. This means that Huskie Stadium and Huskie Field do not use old, ground up tires. The Washington study was fueled by the worry that using old tires was not a safe option for kids to be playing on, so it is reasonable to expect that the rubber used in the new PN fields is a safe option.

The clearest health risk involved with turf fields is the increased heat involved. According to John Brenkus at ESPN Sports Science, turf fields can be 35-55 degrees fahrenheit warmer than grass fields. This leads to an increased risk in dehydration among athletes, especially during hot summer practices. This risk is an issue that must be dealt with by specific coaches. Coaches need to look out for the signs of dehydration, along with giving more water and rest breaks than previously on grass fields. Along with that, athletes themselves need to ensure that they are staying healthy and hydrated, especially on hot days while playing on turf.

Below are the full Q and As with athletic director Chris Riker, along with athletes junior Cam Adams, junior Jonah Pilnick, and freshman Zander Crooks about their perceptions on possible injury risks involved with turf fields.

 

Chris Riker, athletic director:

Q: What were the biggest differences between grass and turf fields that factored into making both Huskie Field and Huskie Stadium turf?

A: Numerous differences between grass and turf. The most obvious being the consistency of the turf surface in all weather conditions and various times of the year. Grass fields can become victims to weather and get torn up leaving a less than desirable playing surface at the end of a season. In addition, early spring can be a difficult time on grass fields as they are uneven and it takes improved weather to get fields to grow take true form. Grass is weather dependent and inconsistent while turf is independent of weather a provides a consistent playing surface.

Other differences between grass and turf would include maintenance and game preparation. Obviously grass requires continual ongoing maintenance that would include mowing, fertilizing, over seeding, top dressing, aerating, etc. In addition, grass fields need specific game day prep done to them (mowing, lines painted, etc). While turf is not 100% maintenance free as is does require rubber in-fill to be added, fibers be swept, g-max tested, and overall inspection of field to check for seams that may have come up, they do not require the same intensity of maintenance. Turf fields also allow  for games lines to be permanently put into the field which eliminates the need to line field for games.

Q: Did the possible increased injury risk of turf fields factor into the decision of building Huskie Field and Huskie Stadium?

A: Risk and injury are things that are always considered when making decision about facilities. Both of our turf fields had a shock pad system installed under them. This reduces the hardness of the field and makes contact with the field less likely to cause an injury. The idea of turf being so “hard” or “easy to sustain injuries” probably comes from the antiquated indoor/outdoor carpet-like stuff that first found its way to athletics fields know as Astroturf. Technology in the turf industry has come a long way. Turf field are no more safe or dangerous than grass fields- it’s all about how the surface is cared for and maintained. Having the shock pad installed under our turf, insured that the g-max rating of the field would never exceed certain levels of hardness or the turf company would be responsible for fixing the issues. With the increased concerns surrounding concussions (most of which come from contact with the playing surface), the district put the safety of our student-athletes first and foremost and did not balk at the additional cost to include the shock pad

One other safety issue we heard during the process was the concern of the potential link between the rubber in-fill in turf fields and cancer. As you may know, early turf fields used recycled ground up tire as the rubber in-fill material. Although nothing has scientifically linked the two together, the concern arose when PPS decided to got the turf route. As a result of wanting those concerns to be heard and to be certain we were providing the safest environment possible to our students, we used EPDM rubber infill- often times referred to as “virgin” rubber. In other words not recycled tires.

Q: What changes have you heard from either players or coaches about having turf fields in recent seasons?

A: The feedback I have heard from our athletes and coaches has been positive. Visiting teams have made comments about our turf “being the best field they have ever played on”. I have not heard a negative comment from anyone yet (besides the complaint about  the rubber pellets in the shoes).

 

Junior Cam Adams:

Q: How did you get injured? Was it a contact or non contact injury?

A: I was playing indoor soccer and went to stop and turn on my left leg and left a pop and my knee buckled and collapsed, it was not contact.

Q: Do you think that the turf ground played a role in the injury? Would it have been any different on grass?

A: I think it was more of a weird play not so much the turf because I’ve played at soccerzone a thousand times and never got injured before this.

Q: Do you think the PN turf soccer field makes it more likely for injuries like yours to occur?

A: No I personally don’t think it does because it helps with grip and will not slide like wet grass fields, I think it’s safer than grass.

 

Junior Jonah Pilnick

Q: Do you think the turf field has affected the health of the team?

A: Yes, I don’t think that having more injuries this year and last is a coincidence. There have been several leg injuries and I think that’s because the turf doesn’t provide sufficient traction and compression as each step is made. I think this weak planting of each step has caused odd movements in other parts of the leg like the knee.

Q: How has turf changed the game for you personally?

A: Turf definitely makes the game faster. I like this increase in pace  because it makes the game more competitive. Also, the ball travels smoothly across the field, which is usually never present on a grass field. All in all, turf has been beneficial to my game.

Q: Are you glad we have turf fields even with the increased injury risk?

A: I am very thankful that Portage was able to give us the amazing turf field. This has allowed me to enjoy high school soccer more. The injuries are something to consider, but it doesn’t overtake the benefits we get in the game. However, it is sometimes important to be a little cautious with making awkward movements due to the decrease in support.

 

Freshman Zander Crooks:

Q: How did you get injured? Was it a contact or non contact injury?

A: I got injured by playing basketball.

Q: Do you think the PN turf soccer field makes it more likely for injuries like yours to occur?

A: I think a lot of injuries happen more on turf than grass. You get an ankle sprain on grass but on turf that can be acl or mcl tear turf injuries are more serious than grass. I think PN soccer field are great, less to maintain and stuff, but more injuries are prone to happen.

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Turf Monster: how do the new Portage Northern turf facilities contribute to injuries?