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

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

The numbers run counter to anecdotal observations this season from a large number of players, agents and coaches who have called for the league to convert all surfaces to grass in response to a spate of high-profile injuries on artificial turf. But the NFL doesn’t plan 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 the NFL’s 16 artificial turf stadiums. “And it’s not because we have the surface we have. Our league statistics don’t see any problems with the type of surface we have as opposed to natural grass. We don’t see any problems. No facts support 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 data to compare injuries at each of the 30 stadiums the league plays in, paying particular attention to non-contact injuries that can potentially be attributed to the surface itself.

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

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

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

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

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

The NFL/NFLPA surface committee presented its findings to owners during last month’s meeting in New York, but details were not previously released. Meanwhile, players and coaches talked about injuries on artificial turf.

Recently, after the Green Bay Packers lost tight end Rashan Gary to a non-contact ACL injury at Detroit’s Ford Field, Packers linebacker De’Vondre Campbell tweeted, “I think it’s time you all take some money off the hook and invest in grass fields for every team in the league. Grass is literally like concrete, there’s nothing when you plant it.”

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Previously, Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp said the difference between the two pads was “not even close.”

After Seattle Seahawks receiver DK Metcalf and Los Angeles Chargers cornerback JC Jackson left the game at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles with non-contact knee injuries, Kupp added: “I know there’s a lot going on around the league right now, there are some issues. Hands down, we should play 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 take a serious look at again this offseason.”

“It’s already been a discussion,” 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 decisions. I’d be banging a drum for that.”

ESPN’s Sarah Barshop contributed to this report.


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