Koy Detmer and Ki-Jana Carter probably don't want to hear about it, but--yeah, sure, of course--there are plenty of good things to say about artificial turf:
1. It's cheap--at least for team owners and college athletic departments. According to the manufacturer of AstroTurf, it costs about $5,000 a year to maintain the average synthetic field. The upkeep on real, live grass can run $50,000 or more. Hey. Who doesn't want to save poor Marge Schott a few bucks?
2. It prolongs the careers of iron-gloved shortstops. Because baseballs are said to bounce truer on the rug, Jose Offerman will probably leave the Dodgers, and fans will get to watch him play without a face mask.
3. It allows people in otherwise uninhabitable climates to attend sporting events indoors. Got tickets yet for the International Burglary Championships at the Pontiac Silverdome?
4. It's the same color as your Uncle Elmer's tuxedo.
Once upon a time, there was a debate. When the Houston Astros glued the first acres of green plastic to the floor of the Astrodome thirty years ago, no one knew quite what to expect. Would ground balls shoot through the infield as if fired from rifles? Would tailbacks and wideouts seemingly gain seven or eight miles an hour? Would the texture of sport be enhanced by artificial turf at the dawn of the 1970s?
The eventual answers to these questions were yes, yes and no. But back then, neither the Astros nor the fans nor the attending physicians of America's two major games had any idea what horrors--aesthetic, strategic and medical--would lie ahead. The proliferation of identical, toilet-bowl-shaped stadiums (where are we, Garvey? Three Rivers or the Vet?) and domed Disneylands carpeted with the stuff continued well into the decade of disco, polyester and Watergate. But the problems emerged slowly at first.
"If a horse can't eat it," well-traveled slugger Richie Allen announced early on, "then I don't like it."
Asked if he preferred grass or AstroTurf, relief pitcher Tug McGraw answered: "I don't know. I've never smoked AstroTurf."
That was before anyone outside the Mayo Clinic knew what an anterior cruciate ligament was, before NFL teams visiting Cincinnati's beturfed Riverfront Stadium discovered it was like playing in the parking lot.
That was before the small, whippet-fast St. Louis Cardinals, instructed by wily manager Whitey Herzog to swing down on the ball, spirited the 1982 World Series away from the lumbering Milwaukee Brewers with a barrage of mutant AstroTurf grounders.
That was before Colorado fans asked why arch-rival Nebraska had laid carpet over in Lincoln: Right--to keep the cheerleaders from grazing.
That was also before the San Francisco 49ers successfully campaigned to replace the artificial surface at Candlestick Park with grass, to pamper the aching knees and tender ankles of one famous player set on finishing a great career in his hometown. Guy named O.J. Simpson.
Now the entire jury's back with the verdict on AstroTurf.
Last year the NFL Players Association conducted a poll in which 85.1 percent of the players said they would prefer to play on grass. Just 6.9 percent voted for turf, and 8 percent didn't care. Ninety-three of every one hundred players said turf was more likely to contribute to injury. Still, fifteen of the league's thirty teams play on plastic, and the incidence of blown-out knees, gruesome concussions and "turf toe"--which is far more painful than it sounds--continues to rise.
San Francisco safety Merton Hanks: "It's like going out in front of your house and painting the street green...It just drains the life out of you. For some reason, they say it can't be scientifically proven, but you ask any player who plays on it."
There's more. While turf has always corrupted baseball, it's only lately gotten too sticky for football.
Back in the Year Zero--1965--manufacturers hoped they had come up with a surface that drained quickly, wore like iron and provided great traction. They succeeded on the first count, but some early turf fields--like the notorious slab in Cincy--quickly grew hard and slick, and that contributed to all sorts of impact injuries. Later generations of turf are more durable and their cushions are softer, but that has created a new problem: The adhesion between the nubby rubber sole of a turf football shoe and the rough plastic fibers of the field is sometimes too good. A player like Barry Sanders, the brilliant, limber running back of the Detroit Lions, clearly benefits from the quick, sure cuts he can make on turf: He's got the mediocre grass stats to prove it. But when a foot gets planted on turf and the knee or hip above that foot gets hit, the foot tends to stay planted.
This Velcro effect has put scores of players in the hospital and ended the careers of some. Just ask Koy or Ki-Jana.
While playing Texas A&M in Boulder on September 23, Colorado quarterback Koy Detmer, the nation's leading passer, suffered a complete tear of the anterior cruciate ligament--the dreaded ACL--in his right knee. He could be gone for the season. Afterward, first-year CU coach Rick Neuheisel and team trainer Dave Burton were cagey about the cause of the injury. Neuheisel said he could neither confirm nor deny that the tear was related to Folsom Field's synthetic turf (installed in 1971), and Burton said the same thing might have happened if the quarterback had been wearing half-inch spikes on grass.
Just one thing, though. No one hit Detmer on the play.
Watch the replay two or three times and it's pretty clear that Koy, trying to avoid the Aggie pass rush, simply stuck to the turf all on his own, twisted a knee and went down. He may have taken CU's Orange Bowl hopes with him.
Gruesome as the Detmer incident was, you have to feel even worse for Ki-Jana Carter. Picked number one in this year's NFL draft, the splendid ex-Penn State running back signed a contract for $19.2 million with the Cincinnati Bengals and was seen as the savior of a dismal franchise. But on August 18 he tore up his knee--another ACL--on his third carry in his first exhibition game. He's out for the year and maybe gone from the team. Just before getting hit by Lions tackle Robert Porcher, Carter said, his shoe stuck in the Silverdome's synthetic turf.
He might have known.
"Ki-Jana's one apprehension on draft day," agent Leigh Steinberg said, "was that he didn't want to play on artificial turf."
Who does? No one in Colorado. It may cost them fifty grand a year, but both the Air Force Academy and Colorado State University sport natural surfaces, as does Coors Field. And when the grass out at Mile High Stadium, home now only to the Denver Broncos, came up unplayable early this year, the City of Denver replaced the sorry sod--twice. The Broncos may not be catering to O.J., but they've got a pretty valuable property of their own. Man named Elway, who's got no ACL at all in one of his 35-year-old knees.
If there's justice in the world, synthetic turf will someday go the way of Richard Nixon and sky-blue leisure suits. But don't count on it just yet. As long as the sun don't shine in the Kingdome and many pro-team owners continue to regard their employees as interchangeable parts, the stuff will remain with us.
Almost ten years ago, Sports Illustrated, for one, began campaigning for a turf phase-out. Strangely, that's never been a burning issue in negotiations between the NFL players' union and the league. As early as 1974, though, a Stanford Research Institute study sponsored by the NFL concluded that football players suffered more injuries on turf, and an NCAA study in 1982 confirmed those findings.
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In 1995, when players are even bigger, faster and stronger, "ACL" might as well stand for "AstroTurf Casualty List."
Even though scientists have found a way to grow real grass in artificial light, the phony stuff remains in place under eight football domes--as well as in seven outdoor stadiums. Major-league baseball teams no longer install it outdoors, but more than half of all college football stadiums have it.
However, the buzz in Cincinnati (if not in Boulder) is that Ki-Jana Carter's injury will finally get the synthetic turf out of Riverfront Stadium--and Ki-Jana out of Cincy. Everywhere else, the demand to play on God's own grass is becoming an ever-higher priority for young blue-chip recruits in baseball and football. So hope as well as stubbornness characterizes an issue no one can quite sweep under the rug.
Uncle Elmer in his green tux may not know it, but the Seventies have got to end some day.