Although Howard University continues to dilly and dally over the exact type of artificial surface it intends to use to cover its football field, apparently it remains committed to choosing fake grass over real grass.
Carl Anderson, vice president for student affairs, said last month, "We are going to put in artificial turf," and there has been nothing from his office or from Leo Miles, the athletic director, or Willie Jeffries, head football coach, to contradict that.
Howard finds itself in the agronomically futile position of having just one athletic field, and a long list of constituencies queued up to use it. Usually, the football team practices and plays on it, as do the band and soccer team. It also is used for classes in physical education and ROTC, and intramural sports. The traffic flow quickly chews up the grass, revealing the bald, brown-dirt surface the students derisively call "Astrodirt." It is a field that goes from bad to worse each season. During games, Jeffries noted half-jokingly, "when we tackle a guy the refs have to call time until the dust settles and we can find everyone."
The predicament at Howard presents the classic argument for installing artificial surface: durability. "We only have one place to do everything," said Miles, "and obviously we can't do it on what we have now." Anderson said that a separate practice field "isn't in the plans now." So what else is Howard to do? Beyond durability, Howard is inclined toward artificial surface for cosmetic reasons. It will look more comely, more prestigious than Astrodirt, and so, as Jeffries said, "We won't have to pray for snow when we bring in our recruits."
But is artificial "turf" safe?
Or does the grabby, high-tech traction of the carpet itself, not to mention its table-top hardness, make it dangerous? Does "turf" blow out too many ankles and knees?
Jeffries said his primary concern in choosing a particular type of field is the safety of his players: "You know I want the safest one."
Sports Illustrated recently published a long report on artificial surfaces that cast significant doubt on their safety for football. In particular, data collected from some 50 schools by Eric Zemper of the NCAA between 1982 and 1984 showed that injuries occurred at "about a 50 percent higher rate on artificial surfaces than on grass." Zemper, now a researcher at the University of Oregon, said the rate was consistent in games and practices, and applicable to all injuries, major and minor.
(There are, to be sure, conflicting surveys. The National Athletic Injury/Illness Reporting System concluded that in cases of "significant" injuries -- those causing players to miss either a game or a week of practice -- there was no difference between "turf" and grass. But the Stanford Research Institute found grass uniformly safer than "turf.")
According to John Macik, the National Football Players Association's sports medicine expert, the NFLPA considers artificial turf "unsafe." Macik said, "Way over 90 percent of our players polled say they hate synthetic turf."
This area's Division I coaches -- Navy's Gary Tranquill, Maryland's Bobby Ross and Virginia's George Welsh -- all said they preferred a good grass field. So does Jeffries; his problem is that Howard doesn't have a good grass field.
The prevailing choice in football carpeting is either AstroTurf's half-inch, crinkly blades glued onto a rubber base, or Omniturf's one-inch, straight blades surrounded by a cushion of sand.
Jeffries has his mind made up for sand-filled. "I don't want a conventional 'turf', no sir," he said, convinced the sand-filled model provides less grab and more give.
Al Weiler, president of Omnisport, producer of Omniturf, credited his product with "a substantial reduction in injuries" compared to other kinds of "turf," and pointed out that the NCAA survey did not include Omniturf fields.
But Tony Mortello, AstroTurf product manager, claimed a sand-filled field was "okay for non-contact sports, but it gets very hard in a very short period of time. It doesn't give a player enough protection. You're rolling the dice in a collision sport."
Anderson said Howard is prepared to spend between $500,000 and $600,000 on a new field. Given the disturbing questions concerning the safety of artificial "turf," perhaps Howard shouldn't be so keen on carpet. Perhaps that money would be better spent trying to make its bad grass good. Tony Burnett, groundskeeper at RFK, thought that could be done by leveling the field and replacing Howard's grass with Prescription Athletic Turf, the surface used at RFK. Should Howard's heavy traffic erode the grass, leaving only dirt, this would simply be an "aesthetic" problem, Burnett said. "All dirt is still better than artificial turf."
If Howard feels it must choose artificial turf, it should press the manufacturer and installer for a guarantee that football injuries won't exceed the previous levels on Astrodirt.
This is college, not pro. Any school should choose safety over durability and style.