In over 30 years as a professional sports turf manager, I have wrestled with, but never really got my arms around this irony: How can we as sports field managers accept responsibility for the condition of the field(s) that we maintain? We all do it. It’s just how we are. We take ownership of our field conditions, and that is admirable. We live and die, define our worth and plan our lives around the condition of our fields. And yet we, as sports field managers, actually only control a small part of the equation to a quality field: its maintenance. Who answers for the way and how often the field is used?

Years ago, I often used my “Field Quality Equation” slide in the beginning of my talks. It was simple:

Events can run the gamut, from no damage at all to killing all the grass on the field. Yet even events that don’t directly damage the grass can adversely affect field quality. Just bumping us off the optimal maintenance schedule has an adverse impact. Most sports field managers have inherited the fields they work on, and so have no control over the design or construction. Establishment is a relic from the old days. Nobody gets proper turfgrass establishment periods anymore, just too much lost revenue. Most of us have little or no input in the scheduling of events on our fields, both sporting and nonsporting. Often our fields are booked by several groups, even third-party groups. All we really control is how the field is maintained, and even that small measure of control is being squeezed with inadequate or dwindling maintenance budgets becoming the norm for many in today’s economy.

If field quality is dependent on both how well it is maintained and how carefully it is used, why does everyone go looking for the sports field manager when the field quality is not acceptable? No player, coach or TV reporter ever says, “This field is lousy. Somebody go find the events planner, now! Where’s the guy that lowered the maintenance budget on this field?”

Title IX was passed in 1972, argued over until 1988, and really kicked in during the ’90s. It was a landmark and worthy addition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. While the original discussions never mentioned athletics, the effective result was to open the doors for female athletes. Millions of new amateur athletes hit the fields, rightly given equal access to sports facilities in programs receiving federal funds (i.e. schools), amongst other guarantees. The construction of new playing fields did not come close to matching this increase in athletes. The overuse era had begun.

The rise of artificial infill surfaces since 1990 has brought about even more field use, and an unrealistic 24/7/365 use model on our treasured natural grass fields. Nonsporting events often outnumber and are added to a heavy game schedule, with the sincere intent to boost revenue. Maintenance too often revolves around the events schedule, when it should be the other way around. Our children’s playgrounds are inspected and closed down when unsafe. Standards are set, and rightly so, yet we let them out on over-scheduled playing surfaces all the time (both natural and artificial). We’ll park cars on a football practice field for game days, yet we can’t bake cookies for our kid’s schoolmates, lest they be allergic to something. Living in Colorado, it amazes me how our wonderful park and school athletic fields are open for play in February when we still have frozen soils and the grass is still two months from breaking dormancy. It seems to start earlier every year.

I can’t prove it or quantify it, but let me state the obvious: The last 20 years have seen a tremendous increase in field use at all levels. When I was a young athlete in the late ’60s and ’70s, we never dreamed of playing a game on a professional field. It was just not done. Now, youth, high school and collegiate games are regularly scheduled on MLB, NFL and MLS game fields. Corporate and private events far outnumber the games in many stadiums. Everyone loves a well-maintained patch of grass … to death.

Have you ever thought about this? Your natural grass field is the only part of your facility that does not come with an owner’s manual to tell you how to maintain it. It is the only part of your facility that can die. And, it can’t be truly replaced in a short period of time, no matter how much money you have. I love the concert promoters that say they will “replace the field” with sod, good to go. Yeah, that means you, Bono!

No doubt, we are in a hard line of work, but these challenges are what get the true sports field manager awake every day. It takes a special breed. Dedicated professionals that say “Good enough … isn’t!” We will still take ownership of our field conditions, that’s just how we are, but I think it serves us well from time to time to remember that equation and realize that we sports field managers really can only answer for the field’s maintenance, and strive to get the whole organization to accept responsibility for its quality.

So the answer to these trends in field use is to keep our perspective and conduct ourselves as professionals. Be the best at your craft that you can possibly be. Learn what must be learned. Maintain your field with excellence. At the end of the day, judge your efforts by the things you have some measure of control over, like the critical decisions you made in terms of the maintenance plan. Document and let the powers that be know the truth. Communicate with players and coaches. Be your field’s best advocate.