Feature Article - February 2006
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Tough Turf

Getting athletic fields in good shape is both complicated and not-so-complicated

By Kyle Ryan

Risk management

One thing America has no shortage of is lawsuits. During the past year, representatives from the STMA have been called as expert witnesses to testify in court for lawsuits that stem from athletic fields. There's no getting around the fact that football or lacrosse or field hockey are inherently dangerous sports. Football seems to have a high risk of injury on its own—a poorly maintained field only exacerbates that. To lower the risk, Trigg suggests conducting safety inspections. Documentation of inspection and repairs shows vigilance and helps prove competence should the matter ever go to trial.

"Use checklists to document inspection of field areas like turf, bases mounds and irrigation heads, as well as non-field areas like bleachers, fences, etc.," he says. "Also document when repairs are completed."

Another type of risk comes from outside user groups. Most fields see only a limited amount of activity during one part of the year. To make them more cost-effective, owners rent them to outside groups for concerts, camps, band practices, religious events, and so on. Even though they bring in money, they can prove costly if the field gets damaged in the process.

When he was field manager for AA-minor-league baseball team the Schaumburg (Ill.) Flyers, Fasbender had his field damaged by a baseball camp held in the stadium. The damage was mostly aesthetic—pit burn from high temperatures and protracted wear in one area—but it opened his eyes. Now he has a comprehensive system in place to protect his fields at the University of Oregon.

A field's vulnerability to damaging wear depends on the type of turf it uses (some grasses are more resilient than others) and the condition of the field beforehand. Knowing a field's proclivities helps, but Fasbender thinks something less scientific is more important.

"Communication in the process is the most important thing," he says. "The second thing is preparation… In terms of protecting yourself against those outside user groups, it's not the day of the event you really need to be worried about. It's the preparation beforehand and the communication beforehand."

Fasbender takes photos of his fields before and after events to document any potential problems. For events that could cause extensive damage to the fields, such as concerts, he insists on an refundable deposit upfront equal to the amount it would cost to replace the field.

"I don't believe that you want to do it for everything," he says. "A standard day camp for kids that are coming in and just playing T-ball or Wiffle ball or whatever on a field…the chance of them causing major damage is slim to none, so why put them through it? But in a high-risk situation, you definitely want to protect yourself in that way."

Don't assume the people renting the fields are terribly competent, either. Just because someone is organizing an event doesn't mean they've done it before and know everything it entails.

"That's probably the biggest thing that people get into problems with," Fasbender says. "In the course of their conversations, they assume that the other people understand what it is they're saying."

Field managers should know what they're doing, though. Caring for athletic turf can seem as complicated as raising a child, but at least the problems and solutions inherent to turf maintenance are relatively clear-cut. It takes a certain vigilance to keep athletic turf in good shape, but the effort pays dividends when it's game time—or when the Rolling Stones show up.