Some of you out there remember what used to be unanimously known as the worst venue in major North American professional sports, Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia. The Eagles and Phillies shared that facility for more than 20 years.
When The Vet housed those teams, there were many stadiums that were dumps, but this one was especially awful. The fans were so rowdy that there was a courthouse and a jail in the building, but what was most terrible about the place was the turf.
There was no such thing as good AstroTurf back when that was the artificial surface of choice in the NFL, but no surface in the league was as rough as the one at The Vet. Former Chicago Bears wide receiver Wendell Davis had his career ended when he blew out both patellar tendons on the surface in 1993. It was a constant source of complaint amongst players in both sports, especially by the home teams. Donovan McNabb once said, “The whole league knows about The Vet turf. There’s two things you can get hit by — our defenders or our stadium.”
These days the artificial surface that is used at NFL stadiums — they don’t share home fields with MLB teams anymore — is FieldTurf. It’s softer than natural grass with the plastic blades, and tire rubber instead of dirt. However, just like AstroTurf, there are concerns that it makes players more susceptible to soft tissue injuries. Also, just like the days of AstroTurf there is a venue that is well known to be the worst: MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
The New York Giants lost a key contributor Monday night on that turf. Sterling Shepard fought hard to recover from an achilles injury, and through three games this season he was the Giants’ leading receiver. Shepard was jogging up the sideline with just under one minute remaining in their loss to the Dallas Cowboys, and suddenly he dropped to the ground as if he got calf kicked by an MMA fighter. He was carted off of the field and later diagnosed with a torn ACL.
Just like The Vet, MetLife receives complaints from both coaches and players. The Baltimore Ravens defeated the New York Jets at that stadium in Week 1, but they weren’t too keen on the playing conditions, according to a quote that ESPN’s Jamison Hensley posted on Twitter.
“That turf was matted down, it was packed down, it was a little tight.” John Harbaugh said. “Maybe that’s how it’s supposed to be. I don’t know, but that’s what I saw. It was a little tough.”
There have been complaints about the surface at MetLife Stadium for some time. In 2020 the surface was actually investigated after several San Francisco 49ers went down with injuries during a game. Coming off of a Super Bowl appearance in 2019, they lost Nick Bosa, Jimmy Garoppolo, Solomon Thomas, Tevin Coleman, and Raheem Mostert all in the same game. Arik Armstead tweeted out after the game that the turf was “trash,” and Kyle Shanahan said to the media, “Guys seemed to be getting stuck in the ground more regularly.” The NFL and NFLPA did investigate the field after that game and found the conditions to be adequate.
Of course I’m neither a doctor nor a scientist. If I was, then I would be making observations of scientific issues much more important to the well-being of this planet than the playing surfaces at football games. Still, I did notice something. During games on FieldTurf, the tire rubber usually flies up from underneath the players’ feet frequently. The rubber isn’t patted down, or gorilla glued. From what I saw of how the FieldTurf was maintained at my former high school when the natural grass was replaced in 2003, somebody periodically comes by in a vehicle and dumps the rubber onto the field.
Over time, as the field is played on, less and less of the rubber will fly up — and getting it in your eye really sucks — but it never stops entirely. I had nothing to do with the field replacement except for going door to door for a month during the summer of 2002 hawking coupon booklets for $20 each. However, I did notice on Monday night that the rubber almost never flies up at MetLife Stadium. It wasn’t at all cold during that game. There was no natural reason for granules of tire rubber to stay stuck to the ground.
Right now there is no study that proves direct causation between injuries and the MetLife FieldTurf. And, unlike The Vet, poor stitching and third base aren’t visible, and a preseason game didn’t have to be canceled when, after the stadium replaced the turf, it was too uneven for a safe game.
While MetLife Stadium isn’t there yet, right now, it does hold the NFL’s terrible turf title.