Guest Column

The solution to southeast PA’s bad grass fields?

One problem with the beautiful game in southeast Pennsylvania is the combination of rye, bluegrass and fescue that dominate our fields. These grasses are notoriously thick and dense. It’s challenging just to hack a pitching wedge through it, let alone have an idea or two with a soccer ball at your feet, make a quick escape into space or ping a two-touch combination with your roaming midfielder.

The problem isn’t so much the grass as much as the length at which most townships cut it. It is too long. Travel around any complex or area school, save the special Memorial Day tourney or LIVE 3v3 tourney, when the grass is cut slick. The fields resemble Merion’s first cut in 2013. Well not quite that bad. But you get the idea.

In contrast, travel east to New Jersey, south towards the Carolinas and Florida or west to the Pacific, and the fields tend to be trim with sparely packed grasses perfectly suited for fast-paced “keep the ball moving along the carpet” pick-up games and league play. It makes me want to climb on a lawn mower and give the grass a cut to give the kids a chance.

Turf: The alternative to bad grass

About 20 years ago, a buddy mentioned he was buying an old rundown building in order to build an indoor turf field. I remember thinking, “Well, that sounds dumb and a rather useless waste of resources. What will it actually do to create income?”

In hindsight, two things were learned:

  1. Don’t prognosticate the stock market;
  2. Don’t doubt my friend’s ability to read the landscape and changing needs of our culture.

He was ahead of the curve in his thinking, and now his little warehouse is a burgeoning turnstile for what has become year-round sports to address the growing need for field space, particularly in the dreary winter months with leagues of all permutations nearly running around the clock.

The turf field has become a savior for many reasons.

  • It allows games to be played when fields would be underwater and unplayable.
  • It allows for off-season athletics to be played when it would be too cold to be outside training.
  • Most importantly, turf allows games to be played faster.

If you don’t believe me, watch a U-9 travel team play in the pasture one week. Then watch the same group of kids play on turf the next. It is as if a young player’s skill set is molecularly more stable and the covalent bonds of team chemistry are stronger on turf. Or better, try and time a one-hopper off the bat of a high school baseball player on a turf field. Not easy, particularly when wet. Not easy at all.

Turf makes you think quicker. It makes you run faster.

But now there is mounting question and evidence that these turf fields may make you die sooner.

Health problems associated with turf?

Recent studies have highlighted potential health implications of pulverized crumb rubber, also known as styrene butadiene, which includes chromium, lead, nickle, mercury, cobalt, copper, chloroethane, isoprene, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, toluene. The klieg-lighted fields of my youth had far fewer known carcinogens to be concerned about than what families face today with this new frontier.

No provable links have been drawn yet between crumb rubber and cancer or general health, but how would the EPA, local, state or federal government go about delivering that information if a link was made? What would be done? How much time needs to pass for ample evidence to be collected? What campaigns would be waged for or against turf fields?

Turf fields are popping up all around and have become part of the sporting culture here in America, even raising controversy with the upcoming Women’s World Cup in Canada. Whatever you think, it certainly is enough to give one pause, to make one consider the implications of inhaling the possible leached carcinogens from a bunch of old Goodyears, or to wonder if we are causing harm to our kids who are spending more and more time on these fields and running around old steel belted playgrounds.


  1. only if they can find a new way to build them that doesn’t involve pulverized material known to contain heavy metals and carcinogens

  2. alicat215 says:

    footy was never suppose to be played on plastic pitches…………just take care of the damn pitch…..its not rocket science. Most of the top local high schools that don’t use turf, have nicer grass fields than the clubs do…….why? The coach and staff are on top of it 24/7….even out of season……..the clubs should really operate the same way. Sod it, roll it, maintain it…….with someone who knows what they are talking about. I don’t care how cost efficient it is………….turf is bad for people on multiple levels. The south is different because of the types of grass they have down there………..bermuda grass. Its short, durable, and great for footy…….we don’t have that luxury…..but its not an excuse. Its almost like Field of Dreams……….if you build it, they will come.

    • My third kid and most technically gifted played a game on grass this saturday that was probably mowed four days before. Typically, he is quite elusive – but on this day, in the thick wicket, there was not an idea to be acted on. The game was dreadfully slow. Ridiculous actually. One more thing for me to rail on.

      • alicat215 says:

        I hear ya…………its something we all got to deal with growing up………but as a player, your mindset has to be………….solve this. The higher up he gets…..the less he’ll have to play on crappy pitches. Remember, a lot of the guys we watch on the TV….played on dirt with no shoes when they were kids……didn’t stop them. Alexi Sanchez had his first Nike’s bought for him when he was 15……..up until then, barefoot on cow pastures!

      • alicat215 says:

        should be mowed day before…or more ideally……the morning of the match! I always had the crew come the morning of the match…..cut it, roll it. My players and I will replace the divots after the match…….you could have putted on it!

  3. philsoc8 says:

    Too much turf is sold with the hype that it does not require maintenance. This is inaccurate and a lot of the turf fields in the area are getting to the end of their lifespans. It will be interesting to see if they get replaced on time. I’m guessing they won’t.

  4. Based on a quick review of the first two studies listed at the link – one from NY State and one from EPA – there do not appear to be any significant concerns raised with the use of artificial turf in either report (other than a call to monitor heat conditions on turf in the NY study).

    As for the desirability of playing on artificial turf, I’d much rather see a soccer match contested on a good artificial pitch than on a typical, poorly-maintained grass field.

    • No argument from me.
      I just find it interesting fodder for a discussion.
      Who knows what the reality is or how long a connection would take or not take to be made. Something to consider is all. I mentioned to a few people I was writing this and three said, “hmm never thought about that before.” Mission accomplished.
      I also know that when I walk into YSC sports complex or the bubble up in Limerick or Starfinder in Manayunk, I can smell the rubber -particularly in Manayunk where the exhaust doesn’t seem to be very good if at all. Even a crumb rubber playground in the heat of summer time has a smell to it.

      • I think its just common sense. How could old rubber be good for one’s health? We stopped burning tires years ago in this country because of the health risks. They tried burning tires in Iraq and a lot of servicemen have come home with serious health problems. Chopping up tires and making tiny pieces out of them, then letting them sit and degrade on their own in a closed environment, or even worse letting them sit outside all year long degrading under the elements, don’t sound like bright ideas to me.

      • alicat215 says:

        Look at the study from Washington state about all the cancer cases and the correlation to soccer players and turf….particularly keepers. Its from a year or two ago….and it was scary. If I had the link I would put it out there………

      • While not a scientific study, here’s an NBC report on the concerns raised by a soccer coach in Washington regarding possible links between artificial turf and cancer:
        I believe this is the story referenced by “alicat” above.

  5. In the Philly Public League, we far prefer turf, with some ridiculous number like 12 groundskeepers for the entire district (not just fields but all lawns, etc), our fields are not beautiful, or even ugly, they’re mountainous, treacherous, and evil. I lose a player a year to our field, usually in preseason.

    • Nothing like the old days of playing on pieces of broken glass up in Fishtown….. with the steel goal cages.

      • alicat215 says:

        Look at the study from Washington state about all the cancer cases and the correlation to soccer players and turf….particularly keepers. Its from a year or two ago….and it was scary. If I had the link I would put it out there………

      • alicat215 says:

        sorry…meant for another post

      • alicat215 says:

        ahhh Newts Rec! Get done playing on the cinders and then you would cough and blow your nose….and it would be black! Made men out of boys that pitch! Its funny, you talk to anyone who played back when we did and the first thing they bring up about the old UJSL was playing in Fishtown. Could you imagine how parents would react to that today?

    • alicat215 says:

      Thats because most grounds keepers in the Pub do the bare minimum…….there are only like two or three who actually do there job. Yes the natural fields suck in the pub….but do you really trust the District to properly take care of the “Super Sites” that they have? If I were in your situation, yes I agree…..turf is pretty much your only option……but that doesn’t hide the fact that a ridiculous bureaucracy between the city, the district, and the unions keeps those fields shitty!

  6. Steve H. says:

    I am not a fan of the turf fields at all.
    It is the goalies who are at the greatest risk by playing a lot on these rubber pellet fields. By diving and getting those pellets in their mouths, swallowing some, but spitting others out.
    Just how much of that stuff being swallowed or injested orally (because even if you don’t swallow the stuff, your mouth absorbs it when the pellets are in there) before bad things happen to some people.
    Also, genetics have something to do with all of this stuff. Some people are more apt to be affected by injesting this stuff than others, what percentages, we do not know. How strong is the correlation between contact with the stuff and bad things happening to the human body, we cannot say right now.
    What we can say is that is cannot be good to be injesting such chemicals at such young ages.
    My son is a goalie and I do not let him play on the pellet fields. Does that hurt his development, who knows, but his health just is not something I am going to risk for some youth sport.
    Sometimes, as a parent, uncertainty is good enough to not do something.

    • alicat215 says:

      +1……………Not my kids, no way in hell. If there is even a chance…..I’m not risking it. Guess what….it won’t hurt development at all. I grew up playing with a YNT player who got a full boat to a major Big East school……and he refused to play on turf until college, his pops wouldn’t allow it either. I will probably follow the same logic….especially now with what studies are showing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


%d bloggers like this: