ANNAPOLIS - Several Prince George’s legislators are trying to get their county to catch up with neighbors like Anne Arundel, Charles, Howard and Montgomery -- as well as D.C. -- that have installed a number of artificial turf fields in recent years.
Traditionally, outdoor field sports have been played on grass, however, Prince George’s would be shifting to more durable, grass-like synthetic fields composed of nylon fibers, padding and crumb rubber infill.
Delegate Jay Walker, D-Prince George’s, and other proponents at a Prince George’s County Affairs Committee meeting on Thursday, said artificial turf fields would be better than the current grass fields because they are more cost efficient, allow for more community use and are safer for athletes.
Walker said the county now barely maintains its high school’s grass fields.
“Our fields are almost embarrassing,” Walker said.
If the proposed bill passes, Prince George’s County would join hundreds of other jurisdictions, parks and recreation departments and college and professional sports programs across the country that have invested millions in synthetic turf fields. But there are questions about whether turf fields really cost less over time, and whether they are safer for athletes.
Installation of the new fields at 21 public high schools is estimated to cost about $18 million. The bill would require them to be in place by 2019.
Thomas Green, athletic director and head football coach at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt, said the school has to regularly postpone or cancel games on rainy days because of the dangerous playing conditions on the school’s grass fields.
“Every year when we get heavy rain, we have to move our games to Monday, and then kids are having to play two games in a span of five or six days,” Green said. “Not even the pros do that.”
Green added that the school has cut back on allowing outside groups to use the field “because of the wear and tear,” and often has to move its own teams off-site to practice.
But experts aren’t sure turf fields are truly better than natural grass fields.
Dr. John Sorochan, co-director of the Center for Athletic Field Safety and an associate professor in Turfgrass Science at the University of Tennessee, said one common misconception is that turf fields are universally more cost-effective.
Although synthetic fields last, on average, 10 years as compared to the average five years that natural grass fields last, artificial turf fields still cost money to maintain.
They “are not maintenance free as they were originally envisioned,” Sorochan said.
In addition to needing to be built properly, synthetic turf fields require weekly brushing, grooming, irrigation, fabric softener to reduce static, and new infill every few years. All of which requires special equipment and staff.
According to a study published by the Sports Turf Managers Association in 2008, an average artificial turf field can require approximately $6,000 per year in material costs (not including equipment), and require 375 labor hours per year to maintain.
“It becomes even more costly to maintain synthetic fields when they are used for multiple sports and purposes,” said Sorochan.
Sen. Douglas J.J. Peters, D-Prince George’s, envisions the fields being available to varsity teams, junior varsity teams, cheerleading squads, school bands, recreation leagues and residents.
“You’re talking about a whole group of individuals who want to use the fields and maybe aren’t on the varsity sports teams,” Peters said.
The natural grass fields in Prince George’s, Peters said, are also only optimal for playing during certain parts of the year -- the football and soccer season. “And that’s it. You can’t use it any other time. The rest of the time it’s used for growing and seeding, and frankly, it’s rocky.”
With artificial turf fields, Peters said, “you’ll be able to play year round.”
James Michael “Mike” Goatley Jr., president of the Sports Turf Managers Association and Extension Turfgrass Specialist at Virginia Tech University, said turf fields can be used during more inclement weather. However, he has witnessed synthetic turf fields fail in Northern Virginia and nationwide due to poor drainage.
“Sure, you can use them in all types of weather conditions,” Goatley said, “but they have to be able to accept and remove (large amounts of) water.”
Proponents of the bill say that in addition to providing space for more athletes and county residents, switching to synthetic turf would also reduce the number of injuries.
“We have had three kids alone (this academic year) tear ACLs (anterior cruciate ligaments) in just routine plays,” said Charles Harley, head football coach at Forestville High School. “We had a kid two years ago jogging down the field when his knee cap popped out because he stepped on an uneven area in the (grass) field.”
There is ongoing research regarding the effects of field surfaces on injuries, including knee injuries and concussions. However, Sorochan pointed to a 2010 study by the National Football League Injury and Safety Panel and other researchers that questioned the claim that artificial turf is safer than natural grass.
The study showed that NFL athletes are 22 percent more likely to sustain orthopedic injuries -- including knee and ankle sprains -- on artificial surfaces than on grass fields.
“The thing about natural grass is that when you run and plant your foot, your foot slides a bit and it doesn’t roll and get injured as much,” said Sorochan. “Artificial turf is like velcro.”
The turf field bill could struggle despite support from a number of Prince George’s County legislators.
County Executive Rushern L. Baker III opposes the bill. The Prince George’s County Board of Education originally voted against the bill on Jan. 20, but rescinded the vote two weeks later.