Turf wars: More and more high schools are installing artificial turf for their athletic fields. How cost effective is it and how safe is it?
FARGO — Artificial turf has become almost a fictitious character thought to have the answers to all of life's problems for athletic directors. It symbolizes a hope for less injuries to athletes and a safe haven from Mother Nature.
But is it the answer?
"We couldn't be happier with our decision to add turf to our stadium," Moorhead athletic director Dean Haugo said. "It has been a complete game changer for our activities."
The usage and upkeep
In 2009, the artificial turf and seating for 1,500 was put in for $1.1 million at Fargo Shanley High School. A year later, $475,000 of an anonymous donation of $2 million to the Fargo Catholic Schools Network was used for permanent seating, fencing and entry gates, a press box and walking paths.
The football and soccer programs had never had a permanent home field in Shanley's 74-year history. The football team played games at Dacotah Field on the campus at North Dakota State University, Jake Christiansen Stadium in Moorhead and Jack Williams Stadium before 2009.
What is currently Sid Cichy Stadium, including the lights and scoreboard, cost about $1.5 million.
So far Shanley is very happy with its purchase, especially the artificial turf.
"I am thrilled with our turf," Shanley athletic director Michael Breker said. "We have had it for 10 years now and it still is in excellent condition. We still have some turf experts that believe our turf is only four or five years old."
Shanley has used it for boys and girls soccer, football and softball games. It's hosted baseball practices, track practices and conditioning practices for multiple sports. It's also been used for student council activities like movie nights. Shanley has also made some money renting it to other high schools, the Fargo Invaders semi-pro football team, work functions, individual workout organizations and local colleges.
In terms of upkeep on the turf, Breker says a few minor tears are fixed and the field is raked twice a year. The cost for that is just the staff doing it because the equipment was originally billed with the installment. A year ago, Shanley had a company come in to decompact and clean the field at a cost between $2,500 and $4,000. That will happen every other year, which Breker says costs less than dealing with grass.
Troy Mattern was the head football coach for Fargo South High School for seven seasons before taking over at Shanley in 2017. Mattern coached his first season on turf in 2017.
"There is no better benefit than turf," Mattern said. "You are always guaranteed to get on the field no matter the weather conditions, don't have to worry if it got mowed too short or the grass is too long or the lines are painted. That is the hardest problem with practicing on grass is you don't get the benefit of the numbers and hashes like you do on turf, and a lot of offensive alignments by receivers is based off of that."
Artificial turf's link to cancer
The elephant in the room when it comes to artificial turf is the question of whether or not there is a link to cancer. Most turf fields are made of recycled rubber tire crumb. The concerns stem from the fact that the tires contain carcinogens and athletes are getting the rubber in their mouths or in their blood.
In early 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry; and the Consumer Product Safety Commission began a study on the health questions regarding artificial turf. A full report is expected later this year.
Sanford Health in Fargo said experts in the medical community feel there's not enough evidence to show that turf has a correlation with cancer.
Whether or not artificial turf prevents injuries is also unknown according to Dr. Ben Noonan, an orthopedic surgeon at Sanford. He feels there is no answer whether turf is a safer surface than grass.
"It's a hard topic," Noonan said. "If you talk to manufacturers who sell it they'll espouse the benefit of it preventing injuries. The problem is the research is extremely mixed."
Noonan said to be careful to trust the research done by those sponsored by the manufacturers of artificial turf. While Noonan believes there is a benefit to the fact turf is a steady surface, he doesn't believe there is reason to think it will prevent injuries.
Despite the unknowns with injuries and cancer, the schools that have turf seem to want more of it.
"The only downfall is every program wants to be on the turf, so there is not enough practice time to go around, so we have to share with the other fall sports like soccer," Mattern said. "We could easily have another field of turf at Shanley that would get used all day long between physical education and athletics."