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The Debate: Defending home turf

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Is the move to artificial turf the right play for the Heels?

Western Carolina v North Carolina
CHAPEL HILL, NC - NOVEMBER 18: A general view as the sun sets during the game between the Western Carolina Catamounts and the North Carolina Tar Heels at Kenan Stadium on November 18, 2017 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Photo by Lance King/Getty Images)
Photo by Lance King/Getty Images

On March 22, 2019, the UNC football field changed forever. No, this wasn’t the date that Mack Brown was hired to resurrect the football program. This wasn’t even the date of a crushing basketball defeat (which would come one week later). This was the date that the request to “upgrade” Kenan Stadium to turf was approved by the University’s Board of Governors.

The move from grass to turf brought a price tag of $2.5 million paid for by the Rams Club. Coach Mack Brown is a big proponent of the artificial turf, having had it installed at Texas.

Is this the right move for the Tar Heels? This week I am joined by world renowned anti-agronomist Al Hood (@albhood). Let the show begin.

The Debate for the week of June 10: Turf versus Grass in Kenan Stadium.

Point by Al: So I get to be on the side of modernization and moving forward? I’ll take it.

The last two years have probably done a better job selling the move to turf than anything I could write. Just take a look at all the work the grounds crew has had to do to continuously tear up the grass and reinstall it during these couple of seasons where the football team has had to practice on it as well. You know what all that running and tearing up does? It creates divots, uneven playing patches, ones that you can’t see and lead to a higher likelihood of injury, or someone falling down on a play. This isn’t a problem with artificial turf. The material stays in place, the base stays even, and players don’t have to play with a fear in the back of their head that they are about to hit a missing chunk of dirt.

Would this be as bad in the next few years since Carolina finally has their practice facility? Maybe not, but you still have to play on that field, which is naturally going to deteriorate. You’re also relying on the time before the game being optimal weather-wise to create the right conditions, and anyone living in North Carolina right now knows the last few months has seen its fair share of wet weather. What does it do to a football team with an air raid offense when the field doesn’t allow them to actually play the way they want to? What sort of home field advantage is that?

Mack Brown also brought up a great point about the move, and what sealed the move to him, when he commented on the state of the field after the High School Championship games. When Brown has to take the time to go and apologize to high school coaches because of the field conditions, you know it’s bad. That effects recruiting, because some of those players could easily be UNC targets, especially that Brown has made in-state recruiting a priority. If they don’t like the field they just played on, why would they want to come back to a place and play on it 8 times a year?

Overall, the move to turf will create a more consistent surface, help protect the players better, and turn a potential recruiting liability into a strength for those high-level players that play on turf in high school. The move makes sense and I’m looking forward to what they can do with the surface.

Counterpoint by Joe: Its the maintenance, not the surface, that matters.

Anyone who has ever played putt-putt on a poorly designed and maintained course knows that artificial turf is not a cure-all. Depressions and inconsistencies in the surface can vary just as much for artificial turf as they do for grass. Much as is the case for building a football program, there has to be a solid foundation that is regularly cared for.

There are a few of different issues that this debate needs to address. The first is injuries. This is a Tar Heel program that has been decimated by injuries over the last couple of years. The question becomes: is that due to the playing surface (or perhaps poor strategies for strength training)? In 2017, LiveScience published an article comparing the relative safety of turf versus grass. The verdict? Injury rates across the two field substances are largely the same. If the surface is well cared for, then there is a slight increase in ankle and ligament injuries on turf. Additionally, knee and head injuries can be made worse on turf than grass.

Another injury point, get ready for turf toe! This is one of the most frustrating injuries in sports as a fan because it sounds like not a big deal. It is, however, incredibly painful and can have long term effects on the athlete. Turf toe can also take a very long time to completely heal, so let’s prepare for that regular entry on the injury report.

Perhaps turf is better for the program, however, because it benefits fast teams. Mack Brown has had an incredible first 6 months of recruiting, but it seems a stretch to believe that Carolina will regularly present a faster team with more talent than their opponents. This is not a knock against the current athletes, just a a remark on the difference between 2019 Carolina and 2009 Texas.

Finally, there are the optics. Artificial turf looks great on television, unless you like your football to look like football. Great games are not played with clean jerseys and road rashes. They are muddied uniforms and questionable game-winning field goals. Battles in the trenches are shown with clods in the facemask. Turf is for domes. Grass is for athletes and fans.

Time for you to decide! Is turf the wave of the future that Carolina should ride or should fans heed nature’s call for grass?

As always, readers are encouraged to join in through the comments and point out what we got right, what we got wrong, and what we never thought of. Also, please feel free to provide suggestions for future topics so we can cover what interests readers and what information is needed to ensure victory when debating slow-witted friends who don’t read the articles!

One note on last week’s article. A great debate ensued over the value of basketball graduate transfers. This was then followed up with Jake’s related article on one-and-dones. I could not help but wade in to the comments because who doesn’t love a good debate? Despite the controversy on mathematics and tournament success, these topics provide a great opportunity for everyone to get involved (particularly if you agree with me!). Off-season is a perfect time to join the Tar Heel Blog community and weigh in on the debates.