A Level Playing Field: Penn State helps keep NFL fields safe for professional athletes

March 2, 2016 in Articles

Earlier this month, Tom Serensits traveled from his home in central Pennsylvania to the warm coasts of Hawaii and California to spend his days not in the sand and surf, but in the turf. Specifically, the turfgrass-covered field for the 2016 Pro Bowl and the practice fields for Super Bowl 50.

Serensits, manager of Penn State’s Center for Sports Surface Research (CSSR) and a former assistant field manager for the Philadelphia Eagles, was on site to consult with the teams’ field managers to make sure the Pro Bowl field was ready for game day and that each of the seven Super Bowl practice fields met safety guidelines during the week of rough-and-tumble practices leading up to the championship.

As concussions continue to plague professional and amateur football players, turfgrass — natural and synthetic — has become a key element in the battle to prevent traumatic brain injuries. Since about 10 to 15 percent of concussions are caused by head-to-ground contact, the status of a field’s turf — including surface hardness and evenness — has an important role in keeping athletes safe. Turfgrass can also have an effect on lower extremity injuries of the knees, ankles and feet.

“We’re looking at how we can make sports fields for football, soccer, golf and baseball more playable and safe,” Serensits said. “It’s a newer area of focus, which is not only about growing and studying grass — which we love to do — but also about how humans interact with these sports surfaces.”

Since 2011, Serensits and Andrew McNitt, director of CSSR, have been collaborating with the National Football League (NFL) and the University of Virginia to monitor an online database that contains information about real and synthetic NFL turf prior to game days.

Within 72 hours of every NFL game — of which there are more than 300 each season — the home-team field managers inspect their fields, complete a series of tests and submit their findings to the database.

From there, it’s Serensits’ and McNitt’s job to review each team’s results and help educate field managers about what needs to be adjusted or fixed, if anything, to make the field safe for the game. The duo also looks for red flags, such as hard, gummy paint, that could become a problem, as well as tracks patterns over time. Throughout the week, they consult with field managers before as many as 16 games.

Serensits says the goal of the online database is to not only keep fields safe and consistent across every professional football arena, but also to help inform a growing body of research about the relationship between sports injuries and turfgrass.

One of the most important tests field managers complete is measuring surface hardness in at least 15, but sometimes up to 100, different places throughout the field. To do this, they use a clegg impact tester to drop a weight and digital accelerometer onto the field to calculate how quickly the weight stops when it hits the surface. The higher the measurement — known as the g-max — the more quickly the weight stops and the harder the field.

To help prevent concussions and other injuries, any locations on the field that score above 100 need to be fixed before the game. With synthetic turf, the grounds crew either has to increase cushioning by adding crumb rubber — a in-fill material that sits between blades of grass — or even out the rubber that’s already there. Since certain places on the field tend to be harder — the center of the field, for example — the measurement helps them evaluate where to focus their attention first.

With natural turf, aerating or re-sodding, which is a more complicated and costly undertaking, are sometimes necessary. But because the database keeps track of surface hardness data, it can help field managers and teams justify expensive improvements.

“The database is not only helping to empower field managers, but is also being used by NFL statisticians to find emerging patterns between injuries and conditions on the field. Over time, we’ll be able to see if there are decreased injuries as fields continue passing these tests,” Serensits said. “At Penn State, we’ve been finding that it’s not necessarily about whether natural or synthetic grass is safer than the other, but about determining the ideal conditions for each type. There are many factors that come into play, including the traction of various shoes on different kinds of turf.”

Beyond the research, part of this work extends to educating the next generation of field managers.

Thomas Goyne, a junior studying turfgrass science, hopes to join the ranks of the many alumni from Penn State’s turfgrass science program stationed with such teams as the Philadelphia Eagles, Oakland Raiders, Green Bay Packers, New York Mets, Minnesota Vikings and New York Jets.

As president of the Penn State Turf Club, Goyne works on the Beaver Stadium grounds crew and has interned for the Miami Marlins and Philadelphia Eagles. While he’s learning about the science of turf at school, he’s getting hands-on experience about caring for and preparing fields at his job and internships.

“Working with sports turf is a trade, a science and an art. In this industry you can combine all three and create something to be really proud of that performs at a professional level,” Goyne said. “Working as part of a grounds crew in college is invaluable. I’m getting to learn about roots, drainage, pest management, fertilization and all the things you can’t learn in class like how to paint lines, manage a turf team and even work on a scoreboard.”

Goyne became interested in turf as a child while watching his dad care for his Little League baseball field. He says his motivation to follow this career path is about more than improving the aesthetics and playability of turf.

“In sports, anything can happen, but the field testing that Penn State is part of has helped develop a range where we know a field can either be successful or unsuccessful,” Goyne said. “The better we make our surfaces, the fewer injuries we’ll see. It’s about people just as much as it is the grass.”

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