For thousands of D.C. children, the week after Labor Day means the thrill of a new soccer season and hours spent preparing for opening weekend games. But this year, as last year, there has been a jarring surprise: shuttered fields and canceled practices.
On Tuesday, the city abruptly closed 15 of its 52 artificial turf fields, saying the rubberized surface was too hard for athletes to use them — with spots that were more like concrete than grass. The closures upended plans for D.C. Stoddert Soccer’s opening weekend and sidelined many of the nearly 6,000 children who play in the city’s largest league.
A spokeswoman for the Department of General Services, which maintains the fields, said eight of the 15 were repaired and reopened by Friday evening, when rain halted the work. If weather permits, the rest will reopen by Monday, the spokeswoman said.
But even if the closures last a week or less, that the same thing happened around the same time last year raises questions about the state of the city’s playing fields, said Jennifer Gootman, executive director of D.C. Stoddert Soccer.
“This isn’t happening in Alexandria or Arlington or Bethesda, but it’s always happening in D.C.,” she said.
The fields that failed the safety tests this year were between five and 10 years old. Seven of the fields closed this year were shut down last year for the same reason. Those fields get a lot of use and the repairs they need are standard, officials said.
But like last year, the city tested and repaired the fields on the eve of the fall athletic season, which means not only canceled events but hurried and shoddy fixes, Gootman said.
“The repairs they do are quick fixes, because they’re waiting until the last minute,” she said. “It doesn’t make sense to wait this long to repair something because then the repair isn’t done well.”
Gootman’s email inbox was overflowing with messages from parents eager to know when the fields would be reopened, she said. At 5 p.m. Friday, Gootman was still waiting to hear if Stoddert teams would be able to play over the weekend, after having to cancel practices during the week.
“We’ve done everything we could possibly do to get ready for the season — until the fields are closed,” Gootman said.
She didn’t find out about the issues until Tuesday morning, when a parent sent her a picture of a sign posted at one of the fields.
The closures also took D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) by surprise. Several of the fields are in her district and she said she’s frustrated with the lack of communication from General Services officials.
“I’ve been blindsided by this,” Cheh said. “We should be on top of this, and the fact that we’re not on top of this is very dispiriting.”
Signs posted at closed fields warned users that the surfaces had recently failed a “hardness test” and that “there is an increased risk of injury in the event of a fall on this field.”
That means when a player falls, the ground absorbs less of the impact and their bodies absorb more, increasing the chance a player gets injured. One study estimated that about 15 percent of concussions in high school sports are due to players hitting their heads on rubberized turf.
The city has tested its turf fields annually since 2012, measuring the hardness in 10 areas around each pitch. If a spot on the field is too hard, it is replaced with patches of new rubber (the city uses unprocessed “virgin rubber” for these repairs, not “crumb rubber,” which some have linked to health risks).
General Services tested the fields last month and received results Monday, which prompted officials to temporarily shut down more than a quarter of the city’s turf fields while they were fixed.
No one is arguing the fields shouldn’t be repaired, Cheh said. They need maintenance and safety should always be the top priority, she said, but the timing of the testing and upkeep should be more strategic.
“Residents are frustrated and I’m frustrated,” Cheh said. “The testing of these fields has to come at a time when repairs can be made, not on the eve of Stoddert Soccer starting and school starting.”
A General Services spokeswoman said testing occurs the same time each year. There’s no convenient time to close fields, she said. There are always people who want to use them, and the agency tries to mitigate the number of people affected.
But scheduling difficulties — especially two years in a row — undermine the public’s confidence in the city’s ability to manage its athletic fields, said M.J. Berman, a Wesley Heights resident with three children on Stoddert teams.
“It makes me question whether people are doing the management of fields properly. Are they looking out for the students and the users?” Berman said. “I wouldn’t be so frustrated if this same exact thing didn’t happen 12 months ago. The lesson was not learned.”