Mid-February has historically been a dead period for Notre Dame football. With the previous season and national signing day in the rearview mirror, and spring practice still several weeks away, all is usually silent on the South Bend front. However, this off-season has been far from ordinary thanks to athletic director Jack Swarbrick announcing a historic partnership with Under Armour and an impending stadium renovation. While such news made major waves within fan circles, the true buzz stems from what has yet to be announced.
Notre Dame is on the verge of potentially bucking 84 years of tradition with a decision on a subject that has been so controversial that it seemingly pits even the closest of Irish fans against one another. Should Notre Dame Stadium continue to utilize a grass playing surface – as it has since opening its doors in 1930 – or switch to synthetic FieldTurf?
Let the bedlam amongst ND fans begin.
Would the switch truly be so terrible? FieldTurf isn’t your father’s artificial surface. It’s not the AstroTurf made famous from the early 1990s that was mostly glorified carpeting and singlehandedly exploded the knee of Penn State star and most hyped NFL draft pick of the decade, Ki-Jana Carter, on the third carry of his professional career, an injury from which he would never recover. No, FieldTurf is taking the football landscape by storm. As of 2012 66% of NFL teams played on FieldTurf, and even those organizations still utilizing a grass playing surface at least possessed FieldTurf practice facilities.
But is the craze warranted? Notre Dame has never been one to join the majority simply because it’s popular. Elite high school recruits may enjoy Oregon’s turf track show and the Ducks’ preference in seemingly changing uniforms at halftime for every game, but Swarbrick and Irish head coach Brian Kelly will need more compelling arguments to forego longstanding tradition.
How about performance? It’s been presupposed by college football fans that FieldTurf automatically equals a faster playing surface, but is it true? According to a 2010 study published by The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, it is. The study found the straight ahead sprint speed of athletes on FieldTurf is similar to natural grass, though change of direction and agility are significantly better on FieldTurf. Athletes competing on FieldTurf experienced a 3% faster agility time.
The report concluded, “The lack of difference in 40-yard dash times was somewhat surprising—since field turf produces less slippage between the shoe and surface, it might have been expected to produce faster sprint times. The results could be affected by differences in the shoe sole and stud configuration used for the tests, Gains and coauthors suggest.”
If FieldTurf’s inability to produce better straight ahead speed in comparison to grass surfaces is dependent upon the traction capability of the shoe worn, Notre Dame may be in luck. According to a study conducted by the Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences, which tested the traction results of different shoe types on FieldTurf, Under Armour’s Highlight MC was one of the very best performers (though, ironically enough, the shoe with the best test results was made by Adidas).
If FieldTurf can produce improved agility and, with the assistance of Under Armour’s high-performing shoes, straight ahead speed capable of providing Brian Kelly with the explosive offenses that made him famous, it should be a no brainer to forego Notre Dame’s grass playing surface, right?
If only it were so simple.
Player safety is a growing concern, and the safety record of FieldTurf is up for debate. The NFL recently released a study which recorded a much higher rate of injury on FieldTurf surfaces, though researchers are quick to note that nothing specifically can be attributed to FieldTurf – merely that the higher rate exists. The report found ACL sprains were 67% more common on FieldTurf than natural grass.
Another growing safety development is the Environmental Protection Agency’s announcement on Christmas Day of 2013 that the health organization was backpedalling on its original stance that FieldTurf is safe for usage, instead calling for further study. The appeal for further analysis has been prompted by concerns regarding potential exposure to chemicals found in shredded tires, a key fixture in synthetic surfaces. The chemicals used in shredded tires include lead, arsenic and mercury, all problematic for football players being routinely tackled face-first into the playing surface.
Tradition against progress. Performance against safety. The University of Notre Dame has a difficult decision looming, and one that will assuredly provoke cries of outrage from one camp of the Fighting Irish’s divided fan base.
What Notre Dame intends to do is anyone’s guess. But given athletic director Jack Swarbrick’s track record since arriving in South Bend, whatever decision made will be the right one.
Scott Janssen is a blogger for the Huffington Post and has authored several nationally-featured articles, including an appearance on MSNBC as a sports contributor. He talks football 24 hours a day, much to the chagrin of his fiancée. Scott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.