The NFL Is Choosing Concerts Over Player Safety. It’s Ending Careers.
NFL athletes are much more likely to suffer lower body injuries on turf than on grass. But billionaire team owners can make more money off turf fields—player safety be damned.
By Jordan Zakarin, More Perfect Union
Imagine you had a job—it could be at an office, a factory, restaurant, hotel, or anywhere really—where the floor was so slippery that at any given moment, you or one of your coworkers could slip and roll an ankle, tear a knee, or wind up with a serious head injury.
You’d probably ask the boss to fix the unnecessarily treacherous floor, right? And if they insisted on being a cold, short-sighted cheapskate, you’d probably quit and find another job. But what if walking out wasn’t an option?
Welcome to the conundrum faced by the NFL Players Association.
After Miami Dolphins linebacker Jaelan Phillips tore his Achilles’ tendon in a game against the New York Jets last month, his teammates had some harsh words for the perpetrator likely responsible for the season-ending injury.
“We’ve got to do something about this turf and this playing surface, because obviously it’s still a major problem,” running back Raheem Mostert told reporters in a post-game press conference.
Jevon Holland, a safety, was more blunt: “Since I’ve been in the league, I’ve heard the field is trash.”
Phillips wasn’t injured by a hard tackle or late hit; he didn’t even make contact with another player before the rupture. Instead, his cleat got caught in the polymer artificial turf that makes up the playing field of MetLife Stadium, triggering a twist and snap that finished the young star’s season in an instant.
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When the turf was installed last March, it was heralded as a big improvement over the slit-film surface that the Jets and Giants, who co-own MetLife Stadium, had forced players to endure for a dozen years. After a slew of high-profile injuries on the old turf, the promise was that the new FieldTurf Core would be far safer for players.
It took all of 37 seconds into the opening game of the season to burst that bubble.
Aaron Rodgers, the Jets’ new Pro Bowl quarterback, tore his ACL on the second play of the game. It ended his season, killed the Jets’ chances of making the Super Bowl, and reignited a debate over whether the NFL should mandate that its teams all play on natural grass fields.
To call it a debate might be disingenuous: Players, doctors, and field professionals are all in agreement that natural grass is easier on the body than artificial turf. The data backs it up: Half of NFL stadiums use grass and half use turf. Between 2012 and 2018, players suffered 28% more freak non-contact lower body injuries on turf compared to grass, including a 69% higher rate of non-contact foot/ankle injuries, according to the NFLPA.
Save for a blip in 2021, when an uptick of injuries on grass created some parity, that trend has held steady. Armed with the evidence, the NFLPA has spent several years trying to convince the NFL to mandate that every stadium have a natural grass playing field.
Not only have league owners refused to comply, two of them just switched from grass to artificial turf. They’ll say their new turf is just as good as natural grass, but modern science says otherwise. Dr. Spencer Stein, an orthopedic surgeon at NYU Langone, told More Perfect Union that turf is just materially harder than grass, while the synthetic material used to fill in the fields cause problems, too.
“If you're planting and your foot gets caught and twists, there's more torque or more rotational pressure around the ankle or these ligaments,” he explained. “If you're running on concrete a lot, it's a lot of wear and tear, whereas if you're running on a softer grass surface, there's more give and more cushion.”
When the NFLPA surveyed its members on which surface they preferred, players overwhelmingly chose natural grass. As Dr. Stein suggests, it’s not just the several ruptures and tears that concern players; it’s also the week-to-week punishment of playing on an unforgiving surface that leads to long-term debilitation.
“Later in my career, my knees were not in good shape,” NFLPA president JC Tretter, a retired offensive lineman who played in the NFL for 11 years, told More Perfect Union. “When the schedule would come out, the first thing I would do is circle the games that are on turf and just hope that they weren't back-to-back weeks, because I knew that I'm not gonna be able to recover.”
“The entire year, I had huge swelling in my knees,” he added.
Most players don’t last 11 years in the league, which churns through enough bodies every year to constitute a small army. The average career is just over three seasons, and there’s no more determinant factor of longevity than whether a player can stay healthy.
“You look at a minimum salary player — well, yes, they make a lot of money on minimum salary, but they have a short time to make that money,” Tretter said. (The minimum salary is based on experience, and the absolute minimum is $750,000 for a rookie.)
“And if by playing on turf, their career is going to be one year shorter than if they had played on grass, that’s up to $900,000 that it's costing him,” Tretter said. “The difference between that guy playing two years versus three is also getting a pension and all the benefits, which is huge.”
Tretter suspects that owners are reluctant to install natural grass because they think it will reduce the number of concerts, monster truck rallies, and other non-football events that they can hold at their stadiums. That may once have been the case, but technology has made grass fields far more versatile.
Some stadiums, like the Raiders’ $1.9 billion new home in Las Vegas, have been designed to allow the easy loading and unloading of trays of perfectly maintained grass. Stadiums such as Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia also roll grass in and out, even without a specially built tray system.
Dr. Trey Rogers, the preeminent sports grass expert in North America, is developing a system that will make it even easier for any stadium to install easily removable grass. The research is funded by FIFA, soccer’s major governing body, which has demanded natural grass for use in stadiums across North America during the 2026 World Cup.
Many NFL stadiums are due to host matches during the tournament, including MetLife Stadium. It would cost maybe $2 million to maintain all season, Rogers estimates, but as of now, the Jets and Giants plan to rip up the turf, install natural grass, and then pull that out and reinstall turf before the NFL season begins.