Feature Article - February 2004
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Fielding Questions

Sports field designs and options for high-performance and high-use

By Stacy St. Clair

During the school year, gym teachers coveted the fields. The district's two high schools were growing each year, and recreation space was at premium. The football field, however, could not handle hundreds of students trampling across it each day. The physical-education department was given the administrative equivalent of a "keep off the grass" sign.

Wheaton school officials finally decided they had had enough. They could not allow such a valuable piece of recreation space go unused 95 percent of the time.

"It was really a minimal-use field," Young says. "Rarely did anyone use it. We wanted something everyone could use."

In summer 2003, the school district earmarked $1.1 million for synthetic fields at its two high schools. Now, there's nonstop programming on the fields.

"Everyone can use it," Young says. "The marching band, the gym classes, the teams. Everyone has a chance. We're very pleased."

Increased programming abilities are the best argument for installing artificial turf, says Bob Campbell, director of grounds keeping at the University of Tennessee. It also explains why synthetic grass has become the darling of high-school athletic departments.

"Everyone is jumping on the bandwagon," he says. "It's a great option for schools and park districts that have lots of things going on the fields."

Campbell, however, doesn't agree with one generally accepted belief that synthetic turf is cheaper in the long run than natural grass. The artificial fields may save money on paint and maintenance, but Campbell—who also is the president of the Sports Turf Managers Association—says there are too many unknowns with the new generation of synthetic grass. For example, they haven't been around long enough to prove their projected eight-year life span.

"It's not the cheapest thing," he says. "It's so new that you don't really know how long it'll last. You hope it'll last eight years, and it might. We just don't know right now."

Campbell also challenges other long-held beliefs about artificial turf. Specifically, he disagrees that the turf causes more injuries. While that might have been true in the past, he says the new synthetic material is easier on the joints.

A recent study also backs his theory. A 2003 NCAA report showed baseball players experienced nearly identical injury rates on synthetic and natural surfaces.

Campbell's anecdotal evidence also suggests football isn't much different. Injuries will occur in a contact sport, he says, regardless of the playing field.

"Big-time injuries are going to happen," he says. "These guys are getting bigger and stronger. They are hitting harder and harder."

Campbell oversees both artificial and natural playing surfaces at his university. The school had an artificial surface from 1967 to 1993, when it reverted back to natural grass. There have been no regrets since going back to real stuff, he says.

"It was the preference of the players," he says. "The players that they were recruiting wanted to play on real grass, too."

Truth be told, it is his preference, too. Campbell doesn't buy the argument that fields should convert to synthetic grass to avoid the ugly late-autumn look. He contends good groundskeepers can ensure their fields looks appealing to a national television audience.

"Everyone likes grass better," he says. "There is no comparison. Even a grass field that is worn a little bit looks better than artificial turf."

Personal preferences aside, recreation managers must determine which turf type will best meet their requirements. Either choice, however, will come with its own positives and negatives.

"There is no panacea," Campbell says. "There is no perfect option. Everyone has to decide what best fits their needs."