Kawakami: Nick Bosa’s practical and powerful case against artificial turf — will NFL owners finally listen?
Maybe all NFL owners will listen to Nick Bosa after they’ve ignored most other rational discourse. Maybe the NFL universe at-large will understand what Bosa told me this week about the pitfalls of playing football games on artificial turf. Maybe the pure, practical truth is really the only argument that can get through.
We’ll get to all of Bosa’s other very logical points about getting rid of artificial turf later in this column. But first, let’s use the direct approach to owners and executives who might want the 49ers defensive end and like-minded superstars to play for their teams. Let’s get right to the guts of it.
This is what I asked Bosa this week: Could future free-agent decisions turn on whether or not a team plays its home games on natural grass instead of artificial turf?
“Oh, a hundred percent,” Bosa said, nodding his head for emphasis. “Yeah, a hundred percent, for sure. It’s usually the older guys who know more about it. Or guys who have dealt with injuries from it. Because when you’re young and in high school and college, you think it’s fast and fun and it looks good. And then you realize after a few years, it’s like, whew, I’ll do anything to get on some grass.”
The great players always eventually have a choice about where they play or if they want to stay, and Bosa, one of the greatest in the league, surely isn’t alone in preferring to play for a team that has a grass field. The only difference is that Bosa, who tore his ACL on the MetLife Stadium artificial field in a game against the Jets in 2020, is now willing to say so.
Also: When owners put their star players on artificial surfaces for at least half the season, those players believe they are at a far greater risk of injury. NFL teams all carry payrolls of about $200 million. It seems rational that spending the $1 million or so a year extra (“a half a percent of what your roster costs,” as 49ers owner Jed York noted to me in August) to ditch the artificial turf would be a half-decent investment.
“Why wouldn’t Jerry Jones want Micah Parsons on the best surface you could possibly have him on?” Bosa said of the Cowboys’ owner and star. “That should be in our favour. But it doesn’t seem like the owners care as much.”
Of course, the 49ers have a grass field at Levi’s Stadium, which York has insisted on even through some iffy times with the turf in the first few years after the stadium opened in 2015. But 16 of the 32 teams play their home games on 14 artificial surfaces (the Los Angeles teams share a stadium and so do the New York teams).
Bosa’s not alone speaking out against artificial turf. There’s a growing drumbeat. 49ers tight end George Kittle has been outspoken this year, mostly noting that there’s a vast inconsistency between the different types of artificial fields used in the NFL, which is jarring to players moving from one field to another week by week. Wide receiver Deebo Samuel has tweeted about it. And many players around the league have pointed to devastating injuries on turf that they believe probably wouldn’t have occurred on a grass field.
Turf should be banned @NFL
— Deebo (@19problemz) February 14, 2022
NFLPA president JC Tretter recently posted a letter on the union’s website citing a report that players had a 28 percent higher rate of non-contact lower-extremity injuries when playing on artificial turf, in results from 2012 to 2018. Tretter also wrote that until a Safer field is developed and used, NFL teams that use artificial turf should change to grass.
Contrastingly, a recent study by a third party contracted by the NFL and NFLPA concluded that injury rates were essentially the same on grass and artificial turf. I’ll point out that there are some questions about the sample size and what it means. The players I’ve talked to shake their heads at that study’s conclusion. Their bodies are the evidence.
The problem for the players, of course, is that any mandate to ban artificial turf would have to be collectively bargained. And the teams that have artificial turf are owned by some of the most powerful people in the league. Also, players are bargaining for their safety against dollars — they’d have to give up huge chunks of their revenue share to get the owners to even consider a grass mandate. And it’s fair for the players to prioritize their own dollars, too.
This has to be a public discussion. The only way there’s any progress away from artificial turf fields is if owners see the logic themselves. Which will take a lot more of this kind of prodding.
Meanwhile, Bosa is a little worried that even something as important as pushing the union for safer fields won’t lead to the desired result. It might just produce newer versions of artificial turf.
“But it’s all the same s—,” Bosa said of the variations, whether it’s the UBU Sports Speed Series S-5M Synthetic Turf at MetLife or Hellas Matrix in Arlington, Texas, and Inglewood, Calif. “I mean, it’s a way to make more money. Which is understandable. It’s easier to move out of the way and have a concert. And it’s easier to maintain; obviously, you throw it down and it’s there for years.
“But the amount of money this league makes, it seems like something like that should be on the forefront. And it’s something not all players really realize. Because maybe they haven’t dealt with an injury. But the wear and tear, even from a young age, when you’re 10 years old. Like, when I’m a parent, I’m going to look for places that have grass. Because I don’t want my kid running around on that stuff from 5 years old ’til high school.
“The impact of each step, each cut … all the force goes straight into your joints and your body. And you could feel it. It’s substantial. And then there’s turfs that grab, which happened to me (at MetLife Stadium). And that’s a whole other story.”
I asked: What does your body feel like after an artificial-turf game as opposed to a grass game?
“I mean, the pain meds you’ve gotta take, the recovery after, the swelling, everything is worse,” Bosa said. “Your ankles are sprained within the first couple plays of the game. It’s night and day, especially when you haven’t been on it for a while, and then we went out to Carolina and you just feel it warming up. It’s not good.”
One place where it went precisely the wrong way: The Panthers played on grass for years in Charlotte, but then owner David Tepper switched to artificial turf last season, partly to make it easier to have more events on-site. Christian McCaffrey, of course, played in Carolina for five-plus seasons before he was traded to the 49ers last month. So he’s gone from grass to artificial turf back to grass all in a few years. All while going through a few injury-ravaged seasons.
“For me, I’m big on just getting used to whatever surface I’m playing on,” McCaffrey said this week. “I trained on the turf because I knew we were going to turf (in Carolina last season). So it took a long time to adapt to that. Grass is obviously more sustainable. You’re way less sore the next day, that’s for sure. And I think it’s just overall better on our bodies. …
“To me, I’ve always preferred grass. I like grass better. Obviously, you see all the different things that happen on turf. When soccer teams that come in here and put in grass, I think we should be able to do the same thing. That’s my opinion on it.”
‘It causes injuries’: After Panthers QB hurt, players are clear — grass over turf
Ah yes, the soccer example. It has not been lost on NFL players that the big-time soccer leagues around the world all require grass fields. In fact, when the FIFA World Cup comes to the US in 2026, SoFi Stadium in LA, AT&T Stadium in Texas, MetLife Stadium and several other NFL hubs will switch to grass just for those games. Then go back to artificial turf for their own games.
If soccer owners and FIFA executives understand how important it is to keep their $100 million players off of artificial turf, why can’t NFL owners? That’s what Jimmy Garoppolo brought up when I asked him if he believes there’s a player movement to get rid of artificial turf.
“Hell yeah,” said Garoppolo, who suffered a high ankle sprain at MetLife on the same day Bosa tore his ACL. “You look at Premier League soccer in Europe, they all play on grass. There’s a reason they play on grass. It’s better for the players, it’s healthier for the players, keeps the good players out there. No one wants to see injuries, get in a tough situation like that.
“I think it’ll take a big effort. Players, coaches, owners, it’s going to take everything to get that moving in the right direction. I think we’ll get there eventually. It’s just how quickly we can get there.”
Could Garoppolo see players making free-agent decisions based on grass vs. artificial surfaces?
“I could see it happening,” Garoppolo said. “I haven’t seen it personally, but I could definitely see that happening. I think maybe when a free agent or something doesn’t want to go to a team because they play eight games on turf at home, that might raise some red flags, put ownership on notice.
“I think we’re blessed here to play on grass. Jed does an awesome job of providing us with that.”
For fair comparison, not every 49ers player I talked to was as vociferous on this issue. Safety Jimmie Ward said he values his opportunity to play pro football and will do it wherever they tell him to play. He knows from experience you can get hurt playing football on any surface.
“Whether it’s the turf, the grass or whatever, it’s still a big percentage that a guy can get hurt or injured each play,” Ward said. “Football’s a physical sport.
“But if everybody’s got a problem with turf, just switch it over to grass. We can help everybody out. If they do the studies and guys are getting more injuries on turf, we’ve gotta switch over. We’ve got enough money, you know? We’re making billions. Each franchise is making millions. I feel like the league, the NFL, the organization should want to protect its players. Because with the players you’re making a lot of money.”
Bosa rolls his eyes at one particular rhetorical impediment: “Then you have the older players who are, like, ‘Oh, I played on concrete.’ It’s like saying you don’t want to improve people’s health and well-being just ’cause the older guys didn’t do it?”
Though it’s more difficult to maintain grass fields in domes, it’s notable that the owners of two dome teams — the Raiders and Cardinals, hardly two of the richest teams and owners in the league — are paying the price to avoid artificial turf. Both teams keep grass fields growing outside and then roll them in for games.
“I don’t know what the dollar difference is between what Las Vegas does (and the dome teams that just use artificial surfaces),” Bosa said, “but your players who could get hurt might not have the same longevity (on artificial turf ). Seems like it would even it out.”
Or more than even out, I added. Bosa nodded and said: “At least even out.”
This is about the morality of protecting their players, but that doesn’t compute so much with NFL owners. It’s about ethics. Same deal. But maybe the stubbornest, cheapest owners at some point will listen to Nick Bosa and players like him, who know they will have more valuable careers and will be more valuable to their teams (and owners) if they’re playing more games on grass than on artificial surfaces. It’s a value add. It makes owners more money to have their best players healthy.
That’s solid common sense. It’s fiscal wisdom. Really, it’s just sanity.
NFL says injury risk similar on artificial turf vs. grass; critics blast that assessment
(Photo: Ezra Shaw / Getty Images)