In recent weeks, numerous players and coaches have called for safer playing fields. This week, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones tried to pooh-pooh those concerns — and he found immediate support from NFL-backed statistics that, as always, can be twisted to support nearly any given premise.
The NFL Players Association has responded, accusing the “NFL PR machine [of going] into overdrive to spin a more favorable narrative to what the union and players know is a problem.”
NFLPA president JC Tretter, in a followup to his September 2020 column calling for all grass fields, has more specific requests this time around. In a new item posted at the union’s official website, Tretter requests: (1) the immediate replacement and ban of all slit-film turf; (2) no longer allowing games to be played on fields with “clear visual abnormalities”; (3) the raising of the field standards and testing the safety and performance of all surfaces; (4) the clearing the excess people and dangerous equipment from the sidelines.
Tretter explains, as to the first item, that “slit-film” playing surfaces have “higher in-game injury rates” compared to all other surfaces for non-contact injuries, missed time injuries, lower extremity injuries, and foot/ankle injuries. He said that the union wrote a letter this week to the NFL “demanding the immediate removal” of those surfaces.
Teams currently using slit-film turf, per Tretter, after the Giants, Jets, Lions, Vikings, Saints, Colts, and Bengals.
“The injuries on slit film are completely avoidable — both the NFL and NFLPA experts agree on the data — and yet the NFL will not protect players from a subpar surface,” Tretter writes.
As to the second item, Tretter points to the regular-season games played in Tottenham, which “had a giant uneven seam right above the numbers.” (We pointed that out in connection with the Giants-Packers game played there last month.)
“We saw this in Chicago and Las Vegas during the preseason as well, with chunks of grass torn up,” Tretter adds. “This is an embarrassment.”
Says Tretter: “The NFL might be quick to say something like, ‘those fields have passed their mandatory inspections.’ While, again, this is a great PR spin, it does not address the need for safety improvements.”
As we explained in connection with the Tottenham situation, what was the alternative to playing the game? At a time when the NFL is desperately trying to globalize the sport, pulling the plug on a game before kickoff and sending everyone home with a rain check or a refund would not have helped the cause. It’s an unfortunate reality, and it will be hard to change that mindset — especially in international games.
As to the third item, Tretter points out that the current field standards are more than 13 years old. He notes that the league and the union “are currently engaged in research to, for the first time, establish” new performance and safety standards that can be used for every field.
“Until we have those standards in place, the NFL needs to be much more conservative when we have visible issues with the fields,” Tretter asserts. “The current field inspections do not account for performance and safety, so we should stop saying that these fields are safe to play on based on the fact they passed said inspection.”
He’s right. But, again, the league surely regards the alternative — postponing or canceling regular-season games — to be unacceptable. After two years of holding the season together through COVID, good luck getting the league to slam the brakes on a game, and in turn screw up the overall schedule, because of concerns regarding the condition of the field.
As to the final point, Tretter again nails it. He said that the league says every year that it will look into streamlining the clutter around the field, but that it never does. (Except during the pandemic.)
Tretter’s column concludes with a clear message for owners. “Stop with the lip service, stop with the media spin, stop pretending you care. And if you actually do care, take the actionable steps to fix the problems our union has identified, especially those issues you actually agree with.”
Even if they don’t care about the players as human beings (and plenty of owners simply don’t), they should care about them as investments. That’s the most amazing part of this. Tens of millions of dollars are devoted to paying players and otherwise keeping them in the right condition to perform. Why not do everything possible to give them playing surfaces that don’t make it harder to stay healthy?
It’s ultimately a cost-benefit analysis, for some owners. It will simply cost too much to improve the surfaces, and they aren’t able or willing to quantify the benefits. Even if those benefits are obvious, regardless of whether the players are regarded as people or as robots.