Create A Softer Landing

By Randy Gaddo

About this time of year, as spring sports give way to summer activities, parks and rec maintenance professionals turn their attention towards getting fields ready for fall football.

Safe, playable fields are the most important consideration. In recent years, studies have shown that concussions put young players at risk for long-term brain damage, not to mention sprains, fractures, or broken bones. Often, these concussive hits occur between players; however, a player hitting the ground can also cause the same intense level of concussion.

The Risks Outweigh The Benefits
Though interested parties will argue different sides of this issue, there is scientific evidence, specifically in a study led by Boston University School of Medicine and posted online in the journal Neurology, that exposing young brains to even one, but more often constant concussive blows in tackle football, can lead to irreversible damage.

The journal reports that neurologic injuries ranging from mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI) to death, and repetitive mTBI has been associated with a degenerative dementia, known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, in later life.

The report notes, “Football has the highest injury rate among team sports, and given that 70 percent of all football players in the United States are under the age of 14, and that every child aged 9 to 12 can be exposed to 240 head impacts during a single football season, a better understanding of neurobehavioral sequelae (abnormal condition resulting from previous injury) among children who play football is urgently needed.”             

This is only one of many studies that can be cited with similar results. It can be assumed that, among those 240 head impacts, a significant number involve contact with the playing surface, so the softer the landing, the less the impact, hypothetically at least.

Mitigating The Risk
With that in mind, those responsible for maintaining a safe and playable surface should be stepping up their game to ensure they do all they can to mitigate the risk.            

In 2015, the Concussion Legacy Foundation (CLF) compiled a report that linked head injuries and poorly maintained fields; while the report primarily cited synthetic fields, the findings can also apply to real turf. The foundation urged groundskeepers, athletic directors, and sports associations to treat their fields as seriously as other protective sports equipment.           

“We have no national conversation on the technology underneath an athlete’s foot,” the authors wrote in their report, titled “The Role of Synthetic Turf in Concussion.” “Helmet technology is an area of great attention and investment, and surfaces deserve the same attention.”

In a study of a nationally representative high-school population, 21.5 percent of concussions across multiple sports occurred as a result of contact with the playing surface; 15.5 percent of concussions were the result of primary head-to-surface contact, and an additional 6 percent were caused by secondary head-to-turf contact after a player-to-player impact.

Authors of the CLF report made the point that a vast majority of playing fields nationwide are still natural grass, and they, too, can become dangerously hard—particularly in cold weather. Harder fields absorb less of a player’s energy when he or she falls, increasing the risk of injury.

Creating A Softer Surface
Nicole Dempsey can attest to the effects of cold weather on fields. As the Parks Supervisor for the New Albany, Ohio, Parks and Recreation Department, she is responsible for safe playing surfaces on all fields. “The winter freeze causes expansion within the soil, which causes a bumpy top surface once thawed,” she observes. “We deal with this by rolling the surface in early spring with a steel roller pulled by a Gator.” A Gator is a lightweight work-utility vehicle made by John Deere that gets the job done without placing the excessive weight a full-sized tractor would put on the field.

“Once the rolling is complete, we then aerate, using a core aerator,” says Dempsey. A core aerator’s tine is a spiked, hollow tube that goes several inches into the soil and pulls a plug of subsoil out. This provides a place for water to penetrate the surface. “The plugs left behind break down quickly once the wet spring is over,” she says.

While there are many other types of aerator tines, plug tines are best for promoting a better cushion on the field’s surface. As the plugs of soil break down, they move back into the holes and across the surface, creating a softer layer across the top of the field.

New Albany has four football/lacrosse (LAX) fields located at Bevelhymer Park. Opened in 2001, the 145-acre park is the hub of the park district’s activities. The parks and rec head office and the equipment facility are there, along with 32 fields for baseball, softball, soccer, football, and lacrosse. The complex also offers residents two tennis courts, a paved walking trail, concession stands, restroom facilities, and playgrounds.

New Albany is a vibrant community located just northeast of the state capitol of Columbus. With a population of more than 10,000 and growing, the city is similar to many small- to medium-sized towns in which parks and rec departments deal daily with limited field capacity; the fields are used excessively, leaving little time for exhaustive maintenance.

“Because we use the football/LAX fields year-round, the preparation of the fields is a year-round operation,” says Dempsey, noting that the department typically doesn’t do major maintenance, such as seeding or aeration during the prime-sport seasons. Spring is focused on reestablishing the level playing surface after the winter freeze/thaw and early-spring use of the fields. Summer is focused on grass growth and health and reducing surface hardness. Fall is focused on keeping the playing surface healthy and alive as the season progresses.

A Year-Round Regiment
Preventing the fields from becoming compacted and hard is not something that can be done only once; it is a constant battle. “We deal with surface hardness by sticking with a strict regimen three to four times a year of core aerating, over-seeding, and watering,” says Dempsey. “In the dryer months, we use a drag to break up the plugs left behind the aerator, which creates a top dressing on the surface that leads to a good environment for seed growth. This combination of efforts creates a softer playing surface.”

To help the maintenance staff members keep up with demand and benefit the fields, Dempsey says that they do outsource mowing to utilize the expertise of the contractors’ certified staff. “We outsource field fertilization as well,” she says, adding they also employ the mowing contractor to coordinate the fertilization and mowing schedules.

The mowing and fertilization contractors, as well as parks and rec crews in New Albany, use primarily lightweight mowers and tractors for all maintenance on playing surfaces. Larger, heavier equipment would enable them to cover the ground more quickly, but may also leave tire depressions in the surface. This is especially true in wetter weather when the field is soft. As the surface dries, these depressions harden and detract from the smoothness of the field. The uneven surface is more likely to snag cleats, causing falls, leading to injuries.

Dempsey emphasizes use of light equipment for field maintenance, even down to the reseeding. “We reseed in early spring, summer within irrigated zones, and in late fall with walk-behind seeders, using mixture of tall fescue,” she says. “Weekly, the surface is mowed with light, zero-turn mowers. In-ground irrigation is also vital during the drier seasons for helping to establish seed growth as well as maintain grass health.”

A Note To Resistance
Injuries are going to occur regardless of how highly maintained the fields are. Even the best surface can contribute to injuries, especially as the impacts are more intense in the game of tackle football.  The issue has become so elevated that some parks and rec departments are transitioning to flag-football programs.

In spite of mounting scientific studies that confirm the long-term risks of youth playing tackle football, regardless of the protective equipment they wear, many parents, coaches, and youth-league organizers are reluctant to discourage children from participating. The whole issue is still influx, but it is something that field-maintenance professionals should follow, for the sake of risk management. 

Interestingly, former Chicago Bears head coach Mike Ditka’s perspective on the subject may shed some light and cause people to stop and think.  Ditka bashed a few heads, and no doubt took a few bashes as a tight end during his college and NFL careers. However, as a January 2015 article from Reuters noted, when asked if he would hypothetically allow his 8-year old son to play tackle football today, he responded, “I think the risk is worse than the reward. I really do.”    

Randy Gaddo, a retired Marine who also served for 15 years in municipal parks and recreation, is now a full-time photojournalist who lives in Bay Minette, Ala.; he can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email cwo4usmc@comcast.net.