Jeff Jacobs: Time will tell if FieldTurf is best for Yale Bowl
BRISTOL — Before he is accused of ivy-covered heresy or failing to care about the long-term health of his athletes, Yale coach Tony Reno wanted us to know something.
“I’m a natural grass guy,” Reno said. “I’m a big fan of it. We tried to really research and find a way to keep natural grass in the Yale Bowl. We just couldn’t do it.”
So in its 106th year, historic Yale Bowl will bare its soul and play host to Ivy League football on synthetic turf.
Little Boy Blue, Albie Booth, played against Army in front of a crowd of 80,000 on that patch of God’s natural New Haven earth. Larry Kelley and Clint Frank won Heisman Trophies on it. The NFL Giants played on its grass in the 1970s. And so many Harvard-Yale memories. Yes, The Game was played on The Grass at Yale Bowl dating to 1914, the year Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated and Army (9-0) could lay claim to the national football championship.
The Yale Bowl is on the Register of Historic Places.
The Yale Bowl, excuse my lack of an Ivy education, also is a freakin’ football field below sea field.
Depending on your view, the new FieldTurf is painting a moustache on the Mona Lisa, wishing cancer on innocent athletes or an entirely laudable move to present a legit playing surface throughout the season and avoid injuries.
“We looked at this,” Reno said. “And we asked ourselves how do we find the best surface for our players? If we wanted to provide them with an elite experience, we needed to put a new surface in. FieldTurf was the best way to go.
“I’m excited for our guys because they have a true surface to play on now. I’m excited for the fans, they’ll have a great game to watch. We would have had to actually raise the field, an astronomical amount of money would have had to have been spent, to keep it the way it was. This is a world-class surface for the entire Yale community.”
The two Yale players and one Yale opponent I spoke to during Ivy League media day at ESPN were in support of the move to turf.
“Especially this year when we start off with three home games,” Yale quarterback Kurt Rawlings said. “If we still had the grass, by Week 4 the field would have been totally ruined. By the time we got to Harvard (Nov. 23), it would be like a pigpen.”
The New Haven City Plan Commission approved the instillation of the turf last December. A group of football alumni funded the approximately $3 million transition. A foot and a half of dirt was dug up, stone dropped, a safety mat designed for fewer concussions installed and topped off with FieldTurf.
After years of discussion, debate and objections, the synthetic got real: Game 1 is Sept. 21 against Holy Cross.
Yale School of Public Health professor Vasilis Vasilou and Nancy Alderman, president of Environment and Human Health and a Yale graduate, have been among those outspoken of the hazards of FieldTurf. Alderman wrote an opinion piece for the New Haven Register last December. Pointing to Yale’s own Sustainability Plan that commits to a “Healthy Planet, Healthy People,” she asked, “If Yale is not attentive to the health and well-being of its athletes, who will be?” It’s a tough question of one of mankind’s leading academic institutions, a haunting one if matters go wrong in the future. Yet it is one that Yale leadership, after a study commissioned by President Peter Salovey, clearly feels it can live with.
Here’s the science: The crumb rubber infill — EPDM — for the synthetic turf contains chemicals and carbon black. Among the chemicals tested by Vasiliou’s Yale team, Alderman wrote, are 11 carcinogens and 20 irritants, many respiratory irritants. Vasiliou told the Yale Daily News the Environmental Protection Agency presumed or suspected several chemicals in the crumb rubber to be cancer-causing. Vasiliou also said another unpublished study his lab conducted suggested the chemicals exhibit endocrine disruption functions that can affect physiology and metabolism.
The Material Safety Data Sheet for EPDM, Alderman wrote, says the product is a “Possible Cancer Hazard” and can be an irritant to lungs, eyes and skin. The International Agency for Research on Cancer evaluation is that carbon black EPDM is possibly carcinogenic to humans and short-term exposure to high concentrations of carbon black dust is a respiratory irritant.
Possible cancer hazard.
Presumed or suspected or suggested.
The stakes are obviously high.
Yet there isn’t proof. The EPA, the government, no, nothing concrete.
I’m not an expert. I do try to read things carefully.
In the meantime, FieldTurf is being installed across Connecticut and the United States. High schools, colleges, you name it. Several Yale athletic teams already play on synthetic turf, without the outcry the Yale Bowl brought. The health of those athletes is every bit as vital.
Vasilou also told the Yale News that with heat and humidity crumb rubber emits volatile compounds, some carcinogenic: “Within a year or two, you won’t develop cancer. But in the long term, the repeated exposure adds up.”
So how much exposure is too much? Every Ivy League opponent except for Brown has turf. Over four years has there already been too much exposure at road games? Five years ago, Amy Griffin, women’s soccer coach at Washington, surveyed American soccer players who had cancer. She found 34 of the 38 were goalkeepers. Diving on the turf could lead to more accidental ingestion or blood contact with crumb rubber. Are linebackers more at risk than kickers?
Again, I’m no expert, especially in the field of scientific supposition.
“I think we did it the right way,” Reno said. “Our practice field has a FieldTurf surface, lacrosse, baseball, softball. We really waited until the study came out and was very inconclusive if it was going to be detrimental. I’m not concerned at all.”
Heat has long been a factor on synthetic turf and that always must be monitored, yet beyond the improved cosmetic look, FieldTurf should help with balance and body control. Fewer gullies, few chewed up patches, should mean fewer injuries, large and small. And with the field still in good shape, the CIAC could hold its state championships there.
“At the end of the season, it was really rough,” Yale defensive lineman Devin Moore said. “If it rained at all, it was muddy. You couldn’t cut anywhere. You couldn’t make any stops. We got out there for a couple of workouts this summer and the way we were moving and running on (Field Turf), I loved it. It’s exciting. I think we’re going to play a lot better.”
“I love it,” Rawlings said. “I’ve always been a fan of turf over grass. I think we can utilize our speed a little more. We always took the bowl, made it our own and embraced it. Took a gritty role. Now that we can be a little clean and pretty on the turf, we can be a little faster. I’m looking forward to it.”
Brown is annually toward the tail end of Yale’s schedule and played at Yale Bowl in 2017 and 2018. Since Brown Stadium is the one Ivy League team with natural grass, its co-captain Nick Allsop is in position to give a fair assessment.
“Yale’s field was terrible,” Allsop said. “Big divots. Mud because of the rain. Really bad. We’re going to scrimmage Yale on the new turf, so I’m really looking forward to it.”
At a meeting late last year, Laura Cahn, who lives near the bowl and is chair of the city’s Environmental Advisory Council, questioned the need for synthetic turf. She pointed out New Haven is one of the two most important bird migration stops in the Northeast. Birds need grass and she has watched them stop to feed at Yale’s athletic fields over the years.
The birds aren’t going to like the Field Turf.
The Tigers of Princeton, the Lions of Columbia, Bears of Brown and Bulldogs of Yale much more so.