On Tuesday afternoon, sports media and NFL Twitter were all abuzz with excitement over the implications of a statement made by Jerry Jones regarding the league's most coveted free agent, Odell Beckham, Jr. During his weekly visit on Shan and RJ on 105.3 The Fan, Jones said of OBJ, “I know the Cowboys star on that helmet when he puts it on could look pretty good.” Jones went on to compliment Beckham's skills and experience which prompted Cowboys stars Micah Parsons and Dez Bryant to reach out to the former Rams wide receiver via Twitter.
One tweet that flew somewhat under the radar, however, was a response to former Cowboys wide receiver and current media personality, Jesse Holley. Holley asked OBJ if playing surfaces factored into his decision making to which OBJ replied, “ALLL FIELDS SHOULD BE GRASS. But don't get me started.”
In Response to OBJ and Others…
Just over an hour after this exchange, an article was published to espn.com by staff writer Kevin Seifert with the headline, “NFL data shows recent injury rates same on grass, artificial turf.” For now, the timing of this article's release and the fact that it quoted Jerry Jones specifically will be chalked up to sheer coincidence. Of much greater import was a quote within the article attributed to the NFL's executive vice president of communications, public affairs and policy who said, “The takeaway from all of this data is that the discussion between synthetic surfaces and natural grass surfaces isn't really the argument. What we're trying to do is decrease injuries on both. As a general matter, looking at synthetic versus natural doesn't really provide us the information we need to try to drive those injury rates down.”
This statement along with a graph of adjusted injury rates by year on synthetic vs natural surfaces led to the conclusion that there is almost no statistical difference in non-contact injury rates to lower extremities that occur on synthetic surfaces as opposed to natural ones.
As the findings were shared via social media and coverage by other media platforms, comments sections and Twitter threads grew quickly, filled mostly with objections by current and former football players who said this data was not in alignment with their experiences or most recent findings on the topic. OBJ provided no further public comment. It may not be necessary since his disdain for turf fields is fairly well documented, and both times Beckham suffered an ACL injury, he was playing on turf. Jesse Holley's Twitter feed, however, became a virtual town hall for Cowboys fans who were suddenly interested in the turf vs grass debate and whether or not Jerry Jones should invest in grass playing and practice fields to lure Beckham to America's Team.
Numbers don't lie, but they can be manipulated
Always aiming to serve the people, it only makes sense for someone at ITS to provide a few tidbits of accurate information to help guide this conversation.
- Regarding the data itself, without the full report, it may not be wise to draw conclusions. Recent studies that claim risk of non-contact injury to lower extremities is higher on synthetic surfaces as opposed to natural ones provide full data sets as well as information regarding the reporting, collection, and analysis of the data. The NFL, in this case, declined to provide data to back up its claim that there is no significant statistical difference.
- Many other recent studies analyzed multiple sports and multiple populations that use natural and synthetic fields. The report publicized yesterday was based only on analysis of NFL injury data.
- Every report and study regarding differences in usage of natural vs synthetic surfaces for athletic contests affirms that there is a difference in how each surface interacts with cleats. Specifically, synthetic surfaces tend to grip cleats in a way that can cause athletes to have to load joints in potentially dangerous ways in order to stop and change direction. One study of NFL injuries, done from an epidemiological perspective, stated, “Synthetic surfaces lack the ability to release a cleat in a potentially injurious overload situation and therefore can generate much greater shear force and torque on the foot and throughout the lower extremity.”
- The International Turfgrass Society helped the NFL develop mandatory practices and standards that the NFL uses to certify synthetic fields 72 hours before gameday (natural fields have a certification process as well). The ITS asserted that although shoe-turf interaction “may be responsible for the increased rate of foot, ankle, and knee injuries seen on infill synthetic surfaces compared with natural grass,” there is no device that can efficiently measure values related to this characteristic. In other words, the NFL evaluates synthetic fields for everything but the factor to which non-contact lower extremity injuries are largely attributed.
Where did this information come from?
Finally, know your sources. Although the NFL declined to release the full report, it is known that the data was analyzed and the report produced by clinical research company IQVIA. Amidst a recent antitrust case against the company, IQVIA was criticized for its “history of deceptive and unethical behavior.” Additionally, in 2018, the Food and Drug Administration brought up serious concerns over errors in opioid sales data reported by IQVIA and requested an independent audit. Even more recently, just this year in fact, an investigation revealed that via a partnership with Experian, IQVIA has been packaging consumer data with health records in order to sell marketing insights to drug companies and device makers.
It's up to each individual to decide whether the NFL's choices to work with IQVIA and withhold their complete findings is questionable, irresponsible, or even deceptive, but it seems that rather than this report discrediting players like Odell Beckham, Jr. it's led to more of a need to address their questions and offer explanations.
It is not clear how much of an impact playing and practice surfaces will have on where OBJ ultimately ends up. In the meantime, both topics are providing plenty of conversation fodder for Cowboys fans.