Idaho professor says turf is better than grass for athletes

As the era of injury prevention in sports reaches new heights, an Idaho State University professor is at the forefront of injury research.

Instead of focusing on the athletes, equipment or the way athletes get hit, Michael Meyers, 60, is studying the surfaces they play on.

In 2000, at a high school football stadium in Abilene, Texas, Meyers saw one of the first-ever FieldTurf fields to be used by players at the high school level.

A researcher at that time, Meyers’ curiosity about the new style of artificial turf began to grow, especially after what he believes were a series of failed experiments in the 1970s with synthetic grass, which in many cases was just carpet laid out on concrete.

Tarkett Inc., the company that manufactures FieldTurf, built the brand around the slogan “looks like grass, feels like grass, plays like grass,” Meyers said. “I said, ‘that’s a pretty large brag right there. I want to find out if it’s true.’”

In 2004, Meyers, an associate professor of sports science and physical education, published a multi-year study comparing the occurrence of sports injuries on natural grass versus FieldTurf. His research, which focused on eight high schools that used either FieldTurf or natural grass, concluded that there fewer injuries on FieldTurf compared to natural grass, and that the injuries on the synthetic surface were typically less severe.

Two years later, FieldTurf officials reached out to Meyers and asked if he’d be interested in researching more of the company’s products.

Three decades of research

Meyers has been researching sports-related injuries for nearly 30 years. Throughout his career, he has studied a variety of sports and physical activities, from rodeo to dance to bungee jumping. But for the last 16 years, his focus has been on studying injuries that occur on grass compared to artificial surfaces in high school and collegiate sports.

“Two things professional organizations take into account is that as the violence of a sport gets worse, you have greater trauma,” Meyers said. “You’re not going to get as much trauma as you would in college football or high school football, but men’s soccer will have more injuries than women’s soccer. So the big issue wasn’t the number of injuries, it was what surface do you find them on.”

His latest study, “Incidence, Mechanisms, and Severity of Match-Related Collegiate Men’s Soccer Injuries on FieldTurf and Natural Grass Surfaces: A 6-Year Prospective Study,” was published in the Nov. 21 issue of The American Journal of Sports Medicine.

“Basically, what we found out with this study is that the artificial grass, specifically FieldTurf, is superior to natural grass in so many ways,” he said.

Meyers studied male soccer athletes from 11 NCAA Division I schools over six seasons. He evaluated 765 games for match-related injuries played on both surfaces.

The study nearly evenly split the number of games played on both surfaces. Overall, Meyers documented 722 injuries, with 268, or 37.1 percent occurring on FieldTurf, and 454, or 62.9 percent occurring on natural grass.

Meyers’ analysis also showed significantly less trauma for injuries that occurred on FieldTurf. Factors in the comparison included severity of injury, type of injury, time loss, player position, injury mechanism and situation, various environmental conditions, cleat design, turf age and elective medical procedures, among others.

A change in trends

One day, Meyers sees a future where natural grass is a thing of the past.

“Everyone is traditionally prone to natural grass when it comes to soccer, but as our new generations come up, they’re not going to remember what a grass field looks like because programs are moving toward artificial turf, whether we like it or not,” Meyers said.

He also believes some types of turf will be more effective than others.

In a separate study, Meyers looked at how the weight of turf surfaces influence athletic injuries. As the weight of turf increases, Meyers said the firmness of the surface and stability also increases. As weight increases, the density and thickness of the turf also increases, according to Meyers.

The study, published in 2013, looked at 52 high schools over four years and showed that as artificial infill surface weight decreased, the incidence of game-related high school football trauma significantly increased across numerous playing conditions.

If the weight of the turf surface is less than 6 pounds per square foot, Meyers said injuries can increase by more than 30 percent. This is because the consistency of infill is greater and provides more support to the athletes’ feet.

“That being said, the majority of fields, especially at the high school level, are 3 to 5 pounds,” Meyers said. “Why? Because there’s less infill, so they’re cheap.”

There are more than 30 companies competing in the synthetic turf market these days, according to Meyers. Because the FieldTurf brand has a majority of the market share, Meyers focused on it specifically for the study. He said the company also invented the infield turf systems most use today.

Meyers has also reached out to several other companies offering to research their product, but those companies have declined the offer.

Because he’s a teacher, Idaho State University supports about 60 percent of Meyers’ research and FieldTurf accounts for the other 40 percent. He maintains all of the data is his, and the company doesn’t receive any of it until his study is published.

Though some may claim his research holds bias, Meyers said his results are just a testament to the increase in safety technology, despite natural grass having a few advantages.

“If you can imagine, at the beginning of every season natural grass is brand new. Whereas the artificial turf sits out there, year after year, with UV rays and it gets pounded on,” he said. “In spite of that, and this study being at the NCAA level where they take very good care of their fields, we still saw significantly lower instances of injuries on the field turf than we did with natural grass.”