Aaron Rodgers Injury Adds Fuel to NFL’s Ongoing Playing Surface Debate
NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers tore his left Achilles tendon on Metlife Stadium’s artificial turf field during the Jets’ first game of the 2023 season. The injury quickly became a spark in the ongoing debate amongst the NFL community on artificial playing surfaces. Directly following the injury, the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) renewed their call for a switch back to natural grass fields in all NFL stadiums, citing injury data and player preference as their key arguments.
Rodgers’ Injury Ruins Jets Debut
In April 2023, the New York Jets traded for four-time MVP Aaron Rodgers in a high-profile move to help revive the team because they hadn't reached the playoffs since 2010. However, the excitement quickly turned to disappointment when Rodgers suffered an ankle injury after just four snaps in his debut with the team. The injury occurred when he slipped and his ankle caught on the artificial turf during a sack by a Buffalo Bills linebacker. This incident is not unique as many players have linked their injuries to artificial surfaces since teams in the league shifted from natural grass fields.
In the late 1960s, major sports leagues, including the NFL, began adopting artificial turf fields. This innovation aimed to reduce the maintenance demands of natural grass fields, ensuring consistent playing surfaces, especially in challenging climates. The artificial turf fields are a cost-effective choice for the league. Since its introduction to the NFL, turf technology has evolved to enhance slip resistance and durability, supposedly prioritizing player safety. The league argues that artificial playing surfaces are the most resistant to adverse weather conditions and the best equipped to withstand the typical wear and tear of games. As of the 2023 season, half of the NFL stadiums feature some form of artificial turf. Notably, with the Chargers and Rams, as well as the Jets and Giants sharing home fields, seventeen out of thirty-two NFL teams now play on artificial turf at their home stadiums.
Artificial fields have garnered mixed reviews from players, with a significant number expressing concerns about their potential to cause injuries. Numerous studies have investigated player injuries on artificial turf versus natural grass fields, with the most significant findings illustrated in the graph below. In four out of five previous seasons, players are more prone to non-direct contact injuries on synthetic fields compared to natural ones. However, despite Rodgers’ injury being just a piece in a decade of data affirming the safety of natural grass over artificial turf, the NFL remains reluctant to transition back to entirely natural surfaces sparking ongoing debate.
 NFL player injury rates on synthetic vs. natural surfaces during the 2018-2022 season
NFLPA & Players Respond
The NFLPA has been adamant about the league utilizing natural fields to ensure player safety since the 1970s. Rodgers’ injury has bolstered the NFLPA’s determination, leading to the organization formally requesting a league wide switch to grass fields just 48 hours after his injury occurred. Executive director Llyod Howell calls it “the easiest decision the NFL can make,” and he recognizes that the change would cost money but argues that the NFL risks the bigger cost of losings its star players to avoidable injuries.
Many players have spoken out as well regarding their own injuries or to vouch for Rodgers, who has been a vocal advocate for grass fields since last season. Two-time MVP Patrick Mahomes spoke on the subject following Rodgers’ injury saying, “the numbers say that grass is healthier for the players, and I want to play on the surface that keeps me healthy," highlighting that his home field is grass. Super Bowl winners Travis Kelce and Jason Kelce also spoke out against artificial turf after Travis suffered an ankle twist on an artificial turf field during a game in Minnesota during week eight of the season. While Travis’ injury was less severe than Rodgers’, both Kelce brothers attribute the slip to the artificial turf, with Jason stating, “We need to get rid of turf altogether.” These are just a few examples of the many players advocating for their safety and natural field preference.
Potential for Change
In 2020, change seemed likely when the NFL negotiated its new Collective Bargaining Agreement ("CBA"). This CBA included promises of enhanced player health and safety measures, such as the establishment of a Field Surface Safety & Performance Committee under Article 39, Section 11. This committee was tasked with developing mandatory field surface standards that all fields must adhere to, as well as requirements for field testing and remedial measures when fields are deemed inadequate. Despite this initial step, a substantial shift back to natural grass fields has yet to begin, and there have been many turf related injuries, such as Rodgers’, in the meantime.
The NFLPA and NFL players know a change back to all grass fields is possible, and other sports leagues, such as the International Association Football Federation (FIFA), are supporting their argument. Notably, all FIFA World Cup Soccer matches are required to be played on natural grass fields. As a result, the eleven NFL stadiums hosting matches this summer must replace any artificial surfaces with grass. This move by FIFA signifies their commitment to player safety and the integrity of the game. It also shows the NFL’s willingness and capability to adapt back to an all-grass field standard for the right price, in this case the potential global acclaim and economic benefits of hosting these soccer matches.
Amidst the wealth of data, the newly implemented CBA safety requirements, the concerns voiced by players, and the precedent set by other leagues in taking essential measures, one can hope for a substantial shift in the NFL’s trajectory toward greater safety and progress. While maintaining natural grass in all stadiums comes at a higher cost than current field upkeep, the prospect of losing star players, like Aaron Rodgers, to injuries on artificial surfaces could ultimately prove more costly for the league.
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