Throw a football on a concrete surface, and Ravens linebacker Roquan Smith will fly to the ball just as hard as he would on grass despite the risk of skinned knees. No playing surface will hold him back.
“At the end of the day, they can roll the ball out anywhere, concrete, basketball court or wherever; I’ll be there,” Smith said.
But just because he will play wherever doesn’t mean he doesn’t have opinions. Given the choice, he would take grass any day. However, he doesn’t get to make those decisions, so he and his teammates will be facing the Tennessee Titans on artificial turf Sunday in their game at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London despite the fact that it has both synthetic and natural grass. The stadium is home to the Tottenham Hotspur Football Club, but the soccer team plays on a natural grass surface that is moved to reveal the artificial surface when NFL teams play there.
Coach John Harbaugh is also a natural grass type of guy, but he said there are some pretty nice artificial surfaces out there. He’s excited to check out the one in Hotspur Stadium, a highly advanced venue.
At one point, the stadium his team called home had artificial turf, too. While Harbaugh is on their side about grass, it was the players’ feelings on the subject and their call to action that spurred change in M&T Bank Stadium.
“I just appreciate our owner, Steve Bisciotti,” Harbaugh said. “Seven or eight years ago, [he] had an opportunity. The players came to him. We [had] turf [in our stadium], and they just asked him, ‘Can you make the stadium grass?’ And he did it, right away. It didn’t matter what the cost [was]. He spends a lot of money to keep that grass up, so, yes, I’m a grass guy.”
The change was made in 2015 in time for the start of the 2016 season. According to Sports Venue Calculator, natural grass costs two to three times more than artificial turf. The startup costs for natural grass are lower, but it has to be constantly maintained. That doesn’t take into account the amount it costs to remove the existing turf.
The NFL is currently split with 15 grass fields and 15 synthetic fields (there are 10 domed stadiums in use, though five have retractable roofs), with 17 of the 32 teams playing home games on an artificial surface (the Rams and Chargers share an artificial surface, as do the Giants and Jets). The venues can also hold events outside of football, such as Taylor Swift concerts, which could cause damage to the grass and increase maintenance costs.
Wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. acknowledged that maintaining grass through the wear and tear of the season is costly, but he doesn’t think that’s a good excuse.
“I think they make enough money to where putting grass in stadiums is really not that big of a thing,” Beckham said. “I think it’s not hard to keep up with, and I just feel like, if we’re talking about the safety of players, grass would be a better surface area for them.”
He is a player with strong opinions on the subject — if you follow him on X, formerly known as Twitter, you probably know that. Although he might seem like he’s ”being a baby and complaining,” Beckham said, he truly believes the topic is important because it comes down to safety.
Beckham pointed to the number of injuries that happen on artificial turf; this topic flared early this season when Aaron Rodgers tore his Achilles in his debut for the New York Jets. When the Ravens made the switch, cornerback Lardarius Webb pointed out that both of his ACL tears came while playing on artificial turf. Quarterback Joe Flacco (knee), running back Justin Forsett (arm) and wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. (Achilles) all suffered season-ending injuries in the year before the change.
Research backs up the anecdotal data. In a study published in The American Journal of Sports Medicine, researchers found, while there are similar overall injury rates on both surfaces, there are significantly more injuries to the lower half of the body on artificial turf.
The NFL and NFLPA get their statistics from the Field Surface Safety and Performance Committee, which is mandated by the collective bargaining agreement and has medical officers from both sides along with third-party experts on it. The NFLPA has pushed for all stadiums to move to grass, but owners have resisted.
The NFL pointed to the advancement of technology and the fact that the number of injuries on each surface evened out in 2021. But the NFLPA has said 2021 is an outlier because the difference went back up in 2022. In the last 11 years, 10 years have shown more injuries on synthetic surfaces. However, a poorly maintained grass field can be as dangerous as turf.
Players also say they feel better when they play on grass, a statistic not so easily measured. It’s a complex issue, and players don’t have control over what they play on in the day to day. The NFLPA says it is fighting for a safer surface, but change won’t come immediately.
So, like Roquan Smith, Beckham, who is recovering from an ankle injury, will play hard no matter how hard or soft the playing surface is.
“Life throws you curveballs,” Beckham said. “You just have to adjust, and turf is what we’re playing on this week. It is what it is. It’s not really up to us, but I think there’s a solution. Whatever it is, I hope that one day they figure that out.”