November 2010 Archives

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Turf issue: Most area schools not regularly testing safety of sports fields

06:46 AM CST on Friday, November 12, 2010
By MARK DENT and BRANDON GEORGE / The Dallas Morning News;

Synthetic turf fields of area high schools aren't being tested or are not being tested often enough to ensure athletes' safety, a problem that experts say could place football players at a greater risk for concussions.

Findings from an open-records request by The Dallas Morning News revealed that most schools don't test the safety and durability of their athletic fields on a regular basis. The hardness and shock absorption properties of a turf field are gauged by G-max, a measurement of acceleration that relates to the maximum force of a collision. A surface with a high G-max absorbs less force, meaning a dropped object sustains more force upon collision.

Most fields, after installation, have a G-max level between 100 and 140. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, anything above 200 is considered unacceptable.

"What's absolutely true is the higher the G-max, the bigger the force the player will sustain," said Dr. Timothy Gay, a physics professor at the University of Nebraska and author of the book Football Physics: The Science of the Game. "Hence, the bigger chance of concussive injury."

The only way to judge the G-max rating and thus the field's safety is by conducting a G-max impact test, something few schools do. Dr. Andrew McNitt, a professor of soil science and turfgrass at Penn State University and member of the Synthetic Turf Managers Association, recommended that high schools test their fields upon installation and then annually, adding that an every-other-year plan would also be a worthy precaution.

"I can walk across fields and think this feels soft, and when we test it's on the hard side," he said. "It's not an easy thing to perceive. You need to impact it."

Based on records obtained from 34 area school districts, only three - Waxahachie, Cedar Hill and Denton - had followed annual testing plans. Dallas, Highland Park, Red Oak, Richardson , Lewisville , Allen, Arlington, Hurst-Euless-Bedford and Lovejoy had tested or scheduled testing at least once.

The majority hadn't tested at all, although the Northwest, Plano, Lake Dallas, Rockwall and Carrollton-Farmers Branch districts performed tests, all of them revealing G-max levels lower than 200, after receiving The News' open-records request.

A G-max test costs an average of $750 to $1,000, a minor annual investment considering that prices for synthetic turf stadium packages range from $300,000 to $1 million.

For the most part, says McNitt, fields do live up to their eight- to 10-year warranty. But in 2008, seven years after installation by Track Masters, three of six areas of turf at Frisco Memorial Stadium tested over 200, with the entire field having an average G-max of 197.8. The turf was replaced in 2009.

This summer, independent testing of Gene and Jerry Jones Stadium at Episcopal School of Dallas, installed by Hellas Construction in 2005, revealed three of six areas above 200.

Wylie , Irving, Dallas, Garland, Duncanville, Ennis, Lake Dallas, Northwest, Mansfield and Carroll school districts either have or had turf surfaces untested for seven years or longer.

"Right now, it's kind of the wild, wild West," said Wayne Poage, former Dallas Baptist University athletic director who now works as a representative for the turf manufacturing company Polytan. "There are not a lot of standards out there, and most people don't know what their kids are playing on, and I don't think they know if it's safe or not. I think there is a real lack of knowledge about artificial turf."

The move to turf

During the last two decades, most school districts in North Texas have transitioned from natural grass fields to artificial turf at stadiums for football, soccer and other sports. Turf company representatives flooded the market in the late 1990s in an effort to attract business as artificial turf became more popular across the U.S.

The reason few districts test these athletic fields mainly has to do with a lack of information from the schools and their advisers and the turf companies' unwillingness to directly share that information.

"We just didn't know a whole lot about it," Plano ISD athletic director Gerald Brence said. "It wasn't one of those things recommended to do."

Most turf companies guarantee that a field's G-max will stay under 200 or better for an eight- to 10-year warranty and provide maintenance plans, but they stop short of testing the fields or adding independent tests as part of regular maintenance. Darren Gill, vice president of marketing for FieldTurf, said the addition of testing would drive up the product's price and make it less favorable in a bidding war among multiple companies.

"It's not up to us to include things," he said.

A turf company will only include testing at the behest of a client. That's a problem, considering schools often know little about testing, nor do their architects or engineers who work as advisers. When asked if his company recommended testing for its clients, a representative from an architectural firm that has worked with area schools on its turf projects responded, "What is G-max testing?"

Bucky Taylor, who recently retired after 36 years as Mesquite High School's head athletic trainer, said that in his experience, once turf companies install their product, it's rare to hear from them again. Taylor, who wrote a strict concussion management policy for the Mesquite school district, said there needs to be some kind of industry standard in place that holds turf companies more accountable for the maintenance and safety of their fields for more than the initial installation process.

"Once these companies put the turf in, they really don't say you need to have someone come out here and test it every year," Taylor said. "Some kind of industry standard should provide testing for 10 years or so. There needs to be some more guidance from the industry that this is what you need to do and how you need to do it."

DISD fields

Dallas Independent School District athletic director Jeff Johnson said DISD has never performed a G-max test on any of its seven artificial turf football fields, although records indicate Loos was tested in 2005. That includes Forester, which had its turf installed in 2002, and Sprague, Franklin, Pleasant Grove and Seagoville fields that had turf installed in 2003.

Johnson said DISD did, however, have a company come in about two years ago to perform a four-step maintenance program to revitalize the playing surfaces of each field.

"I don't know a whole lot about G-max tests, to be honest with you," Johnson said. "All this really came up this year. Everyone has their own opinion, and we haven't felt a need to do any such testing. We always have the best interest of our athletes at heart. I don't think it's cost that keeps anything from getting it done. We'll be taking a closer look at it, and if need be, we'll do it."

Mark Cousins, policy director for the University Interscholastic League, said the governing body hasn't researched G-max testing and has no stance on the issue. Some athletic directors, such as Keller's Bob Dejonge and Lewisville's Randy Mayes, didn't believe annual testing was necessary. Lewisville has tests scheduled for every four years.

Districts or schools such as Allen, Irving, Mesquite, Coppell, H-E-B, Duncanville, Bishop Lynch, Waxahachie, C-FB and Carrollton Prince of Peace Christian have fields with an e-layer, a 1-inch rubber pad that's installed underneath the turf for better safety and to extend the life of the field by a few years. The addition of an e-layer costs about $100,000, a luxury many schools skip, but one that further ensures a proper G-max.

"That's something we've talked about here in Irving, but we haven't done it yet because I don't think it's needed," Irving athletic director Joe Barnett said about tests on the district's 9-year-old field. "Our turf is still in pretty good shape. It's springy and soft. That's not to say we won't do it in a year or two."

McNitt, while saying that most fields stay in good condition if they are properly cared for, compared the need for regular testing to having a car inspected while under warranty. If a school's field is required to maintain a low G-max rating, why wouldn't you test to make sure?

His opinion is shared by Gina Farmer, athletic director of Cedar Hill. The turf at Longhorn Stadium is scheduled to be tested annually.

"We want to assure that our playing fields are safe for our kids to play on and assure they're in proper working order," Farmer said. "It's good to test them annually to assure the community that the fields are safe and they're still testing in the range they should be testing in."

Told that her district is one of the few that annually tests its artificial turf, Farmer said, "That kind of surprises me, especially the way litigation is today."

A school decision

The field at Episcopal School of Dallas is again a hub of activity, the place where students play football, soccer, field hockey and lacrosse. For a few days in August, it went unused. A test had revealed dangerous G-max levels.

Hellas Construction had installed the turf at ESD in 2005. The company's CEO, Reed Seaton, said that Hellas talks to its clients about G-max as a test method and also how to ensure a field's safety but includes G-max testing only if specified by the client. ESD athletic director David Tollison said that workers from Hellas came each year and helped with cleaning and grooming of the field but said G-max testing was unnecessary.

In August, G9 Turf, a company co-founded by former Dallas Cowboys fullback Daryl Johnston that includes regular testing as part of maintenance, recommended that ESD test its field. Sports Engineering Technologies, one of a handful of G-max testing groups in Texas, did the test, revealing areas with unsafe levels over 200. Asked about the G-max ratings at ESD, Seaton disputed the results, saying they were performed by a noncontracted party.

"When we tested the field, it was not even close to that number," he said. "I think the interview is over, because you are on the side of the witch hunt and not looking for facts."

The contention illustrates the fragmentation of the turf industry, where a wide range of advisers, sellers, testers and researchers have different opinions and levels of knowledge about the same product. There are calls for uniform industry standards regarding warranty and regular testing, but no formal group pushing for them.

It is instead up to the schools and the athletic directors to listen to the chorus of clashing voices and make the best decision regarding children's safety on their fields. Some athletic directors remain confident that testing is not needed, certainly not annually, and some, like ESD's Tollison, say they will now test each year.

Poage, the former Dallas Baptist athletic director who is now part of a turf industry not generally inclined to testing, advocates caution.

"You're supposed to be looking out for the best interest of your student athletes," he said, "and it should be independently tested.";


In September, The Dallas Morning News sent out open records requests to 35 area school districts asking them for documents regarding the installation and expense of synthetic turf fields on their varsity stadiums, the year of installation and, mainly, if the district had had G-max tests performed on their synthetic turf fields and the results of its last two tests. Thirty-four districts responded; Midlothian ISD did not.

Of the 34, only three followed annual testing plans. Eight districts had had someone test their field at least once. Seven other districts scheduled tests after receiving the open records request. One district, Lovejoy, provided documentation of a scheduled test before the open records request that had not taken place. Lewisville said it had scheduled testing on its fields for four years after their respective installations.

Plano, Northwest and Lake Dallas were among the seven to schedule tests after receiving the open records requests. They have synthetic turf installed by FieldTurf. Their fields were tested by RS Global, the Southwest representative for FieldTurf.

Most fields, after installation, have a G-max level between 100 and 140. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, anything above 200 is considered unacceptable.

District Stadium Year of turf installation Most recent G-max Average result
Allen**** Eagle 2003 2005 97.3
Arlington Cravens 2007 2007 97.9

Wilemon 2007 2007 95.8

Maverick 2009

Carroll Dragon 2009

Cedar Hill**** Longhorn 2008 2009 125.3
CFB-ISD Standridge 2005 2010* 130.7
Coppell Cowboy 2007

Dallas Loos 2005 2005 115.3

Seagoville 2003

Sprague 2003

Kincaide 2005

Forester 2002

Pleasant Grove 2003

Franklin 2003

Denton**** Denton ISD 2009 2010 149.75

C.H. Collins 2005

DeSoto Eagle 2004

Duncanville Panther 2010

Ennis Lion Memorial 2010

Forney Forney City Bank 2007 **2010

North Forney 2010 **2010
Frisco Memorial 2009 2008 197.8
Garland Williams 2002

Homer Johnson 2005

GC-ISD Mustang-Panther 2007

Grand Prairie Gopher Warrior 2004

HEB-ISD Pennington 2010 2010 119
Highland Park Highlander 2006 2010 157.9
Irving Irving Schools 2001

Keller Keller ISD 2004

Lake Dallas Falcon Stadium 2002 2010* 178.3
Lancaster Beverly D. Humphrey Tiger 2005
Lewisville Tommy Briggs Stadium 2006

Hawk Stadium 2008

Neal Wilson Stadium 2008

Marauders Stadium 2010

Max Goldsmith Stadium 2006

Lovejoy Leopard 2006 2010***
Mansfield RL Anderson 2002

Newsom 2006

McKinney Ron Poe 2004

Mesquite Memorial 2005 2010**

E.H. Hanby 2005 2010**
Northwest Texan 2001 2010* 171.6
Plano Kimbrough 2003 2010* 147.1

Clark 2006 2010* 143.8
Red Oak**** Billy Goodloe 2005 2010 117.8
Richardson Eagle-Mustang 2001 2006 110

Wildcat-Ram 2001 2006 111
Rockwall Wilkerson-Sanders Stadium 2005 2010* 113.7  
Waxahachie**** Lumpkins 2009 2010 102.8
Wylie Wylie 2003

*District tested field(s) after open records request.
**District tested after open records request but didn't include results.
***District had scheduled test before open records request that wasn't yet completed.
****District has had more than one G-max test on field(s).
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