NFL data shows recent injury rates same on grass, artificial turf

The NFL’s recent rate of non-contact knee, ankle and foot injuries is about the same on natural and artificial playing surfaces, according to internal data reviewed Tuesday by ESPN.

The numbers contradict anecdotal observations this season from a wide range of players, agents and coaches who have called for the league to convert all surfaces to grass in response to a spate of serious injuries on artificial turf. But the NFL doesn’t intend to do that, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said Tuesday morning on 105.3 The Fan, citing current data.

“Not at all,” said Jones, whose team plays in one of 16 NFL stadiums with an artificial surface. “And it’s not because we have the surface that we have. Our league statistics don’t see any problems with the type of surface that we have as opposed to natural grass. We don’t see any problems. There’s no evidence of that.”

The NFL and NFLPA use a third-party company, IQVIA, to collect and analyze data on every injury sustained during each season. Their joint surface committee uses the data to compare injuries on each of the 30 fields the league plays on, paying particular attention to non-contact injuries that could potentially be attributed to the surface itself.

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These injuries are classified as non-contact and in the lower extremities: knees, ankles and feet. ESPN obtained a chart plotting those injuries over the past four seasons.

As recently as 2019, the rate of such injuries was significantly higher on artificial turf pitches than on grass. But the gap started to narrow in 2020, and by 2021, the numbers were almost the same. Artificial surfaces had an incidence rate of 0.042 per 100 in 2021, while the rate for natural surfaces was 0.041 per 100.

That ratio “reproduced” during the 2022 preseason, according to Jeff Miller, the NFL’s executive vice president of communications, public affairs and policy. Full figures for 2022 will be compiled at the end of the season.

“The takeaway from all of this data is that the debate between synthetic surfaces and natural grass surfaces is not really the argument,” Miller said. “What we’re trying to do is reduce injuries in both. In general, looking at synthetics versus naturals doesn’t really give us the information we need to try to reduce those injury rates.”

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It’s not entirely clear why the difference in rates has narrowed, though one reason is that turf injuries increased from 2018 to 2021. Miller noted that there is “more dynamism” in the artificial turf market and that stadiums are ordering replacements by average every two or three years. He also said the NFL and NFLPA are working with stadium managers to optimize turf care.

The NFL/NFLPA surface committee presented its findings to owners during last month’s meeting in New York, but the details had not previously been made public. Meanwhile, players and coaches are speaking out about injuries on artificial turf.

More recently, after the Green Bay Packers lost wide receiver Rashan Gary to a non-contact ACL injury at Detroit’s Ford Field, Packers linebacker De’Vondre Campbell tweeted: “I think it’s time to get some of the money . Take us off and invest in grass for every team in the league. Turf is literally like concrete and has no effect when you plant.”

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Previously, Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp said the difference between the two surfaces “isn’t even close.”

After Seattle Seahawks wide receiver DK Metcalf and Los Angeles Chargers cornerback JC Jackson both left a game at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles with non-contact knee injuries, Kupp added: “I know there are things around the league right now, there are some issues. Hands down, we should be playing on grass. Hands down, we should be on grass. And that’s all I’m going to say.”

Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said the issue is something we “definitely have to look at very seriously again in the offseason.”

“It’s been discussed in the past,” Carroll said. “We’ve got to do what’s right, and we’ve got to do what’s safest for the players, and we’ve got to make those choices. I’d beat the drum for that.”

ESPN’s Sarah Barshop contributed to this report.


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