Among the best parts of the annual Sports Turf Managers Association (STMA) Conference & Exhibition are the discussions that take place about hot-button sports turf industry topics.

One of these discussions in Orlando happened on Jan. 25 during the event’s Opening General Session, where Dr. Andrew McNitt (Penn State University) and Dr. John Sorochan (University of Tennessee) tackled several controversial and thought-generating topics. Among them was the question, “Why are so many high schools across the U.S. going to synthetic fields?” Here’s what the doctors had to say:

DR. MCNITT

  • On the process of deciding to go with synthetic or natural at a high school: “We here so many things, like ‘Synthetic is cheaper,’ or ‘Synthetic is easier to maintain.’ There are a lot of reasons that are given that aren’t necessarily the real reasons. With proper construction and proper maintenance, we can have great natural grass fields at the high school level. So, the question becomes, ‘Why aren’t the high schools putting in natural fields?’”
  • On differing perspectives: “Sports turf is our world. But the people involved in these decisions… it’s not their world. Try for a minute to put yourself in their place. You’ve got certain groups to think about. You have the school superintendent and the school board, who the superintendent reports to. You have architects and project managers. You also have the athletic director. Every situation is unique, but generally, the athletic director has a tough job. Along with all of their other duties — including teaching at some schools — they have to schedule that field.”
  • On issues scheduling events on fields: “Things have changed. When I played football, seventh and eighth grade games were played on a practice field at 3 p.m. somewhere, and maybe three parents were there. Now, every game is played on the stadium field — seventh, eighth and ninth grade, JV and varsity all having a game on the field every week or every other week. We’ve also seen the rise of soccer. We have girls’ and boys’ soccer teams, from seventh grade all the way up to the varsity level. The schedules on these fields are much different than they used to be. And it seems like everyone wants to have the games at 7 p.m., so the parents can be there and so everyone can play under the lights. What happens if you have a rainout? With all the sports that play on that field, scheduling becomes extremely difficult. We know, that with the proper technology, it can be done on a natural field. But it takes people, knowledge and money to have an all-weather, natural playing surface. It’s all about scheduling. [Administrators] don’t care about the field like [sports turf managers] do and they don’t want to think about it. That’s what you’re fighting. They want to schedule [the most amount of games possible]. They have no allegiance to natural or synthetic.”

DR. SOROCHAN

  • On following trends: “It’s become about ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ as far as why so many high schools are putting in artificial fields. They are doing it because the school down the street did it. These fields are being used for every sport now.”
  • On legislation and politics: “Politics also isn’t helping our cause [for natural fields.] Legislation, especially in the sorochanNortheast, is putting bans on pesticides and it’s becoming difficult to keep natural grass fields in these areas safe, playable and consistent. You get an increase in weeds; grubs cause a lot of damage that you can’t control. So, in these cases, the alternative is installing a synthetic field. It’s not science-based — this legislation [to ban pesticides] is just to win votes. There’s science backing up why pesticides are being banned in places like California, Connecticut and New York.”
  • On educating the public: “When I was a student at Michigan State University, Dr. Joe Vargas always had the ‘perception versus reality’ talk. We have concerned soccer moms and dads out there looking at the fields and wanting what’s best for their kids. You see a lot in the news media about concussions and kids getting hurt playing sports. Everyone is concerned… I have two kids who play travel club soccer. I’m obviously concerned about what’s going on with fields. Legislation has told these concerned parents that these banned pesticides are bad, yet you have someone who maybe just finished smoking a cigarette, or had some coffee, or maybe just took some aspirin. Maybe they made a mess so they’re using cleaning products, wiping stuff up with bare hands. So, that’s fine, but we can’t control white grubs on a soccer field using an insecticide? These products have come a long way. We need to be proactive and see that this legislation isn’t what’s best for our fields.”
  • On the importance of good communication: “You are the turfgrass professional and there are concerned parents out there, rightfully so. That’s why we have extension services. You can help ease their concerns. You can explain that you have the same goal and mission to make the field safe for the children that are playing on it. For example, this is why you spot spray for weeds rather than broadcast spray, which is actually safer than the aspirin they took that morning. We need to be our own champions. When there’s a game, go around and introduce yourself. Talk to your neighbors. Make information available to people.”