Safe playing fields. We talk about this all the time. It’s the first pillar in our hallowed triad: safety, playability, appearance. A safe field should be the prerequisite, an absolute must. We all know of situations where a field has been deemed unsafe for play, and the games moved, postponed or canceled. Hardness guidelines will be coming soon.

The next step will be a growing nationwide emphasis on field safety in general. The lawyers will trump the bean counters, and more adequate resources for field management will be allocated. Some facilities and organizations are already ahead on this issue, with many fields being safety checklisted routinely by the field prep team. It’s time we begin to get our arms around the idea of sports field safety and how we can fulfill our role as partners in the game.

As sports field managers, field safety is our top priority, and yet we struggle to define it. We know an unsafe field when we see one, but what really constitutes a reasonable safety checklist for an athletic field? What exactly do we mean when we talk about a safe playing field?

I like to visit and walk the park and school athletic fields where I live. Try it sometime, you can really learn a lot. I see fields I would never allow a child of mine to play on, and I see fields that would be fit for professional sports teams. It really runs the gamut in terms of field safety and quality. I also see the newer fields as part of a larger trend toward athletic field complexes and away from fields lined out in a park.

It becomes obvious that the baseball and softball fields are usually the highest quality, the soccer fields are next, and the football fields often lag behind, although there are a few excellent exceptions. I wonder why this is so.

I’ve noticed that baseball/softball fields are almost always fenced off and closed to public play. Not so with most soccer and football fields. The boom in lacrosse has really hurt the quality of our football fields, both natural and artificial. It’s really growing rapidly in many parts of our country, and is often played on football fields.

It’s a great sport, but the center hash on the 10-yard lines are generally trashed from goalmouth wear, as is the 50-yard line center point from faceoff (in boys’ lacrosse). The goal line to 5-yard line areas are hit hard by girls’ lacrosse goalmouths.

My tiny sample size of 30 to 40 fields tells me that this arrangement isn’t working on real grass or artificial turf. On grass fields it causes deep holes that can fill up with water; poor grades from previous repairs; a lack of grass cover; and hard ground. On artificial infill fields it’s worn-out fibers; thin rubber infill from walk-off rubber; and hard ground.

I’m starting to see the entire crease circles replaced on infill fields after they have worn out. Just like a sod patch on a grass field, this creates a small area that can play different than the rest of the field, especially in impact attenuation or hardness.

Consistency is a critical part of sports field safety. Athletes can usually adjust to different conditions, especially elite athletes. It’s the surprises that they don’t like and can’t adjust to.

In my high-altitude, semi-arid climate, perhaps the most prevalent problem I see is poor irrigation practices: outdated components, poorly maintained or neglected and barely managed. Within 10 seconds of arriving at a facility or field, I can tell you if they have an up-to-date irrigation system. The high-quality fields I see all have newer irrigation systems, with small top-diameter heads properly designed, installed and maintained. It’s really quite striking the difference a good irrigation system can make.

In wetter climates I imagine the mirror image to our irrigation problem is drainage and grading. Yes, you really can learn a lot by walking your local community sports fields. I think you’ll see some good and some not so good, and it can be easy to find obvious safety hazards, especially on football/lacrosse fields.

I can’t understand these blatant field safety hazards that should be obvious to anyone involved in the program. Injuries are an inherent risk from playing sports, and no one wants a nanny state. I’m talking about obvious and correctable hazards. Irrigation heads set too high or too low, especially the old large-diameter heads, should never be seen on a field ready for play. Asphalt running and landing pits are common on many traditional football/track complexes, yet some of them are only a few feet from the sideline of the field.

This is where we need to start on our quest for safe playing fields – the obvious safety hazards, the low-hanging fruit. In 1988, the ASTM published “Natural and Artificial Playing Fields: Characteristics and Safety Features.” It includes several papers on safety guidelines in the design and operation of athletic fields. Comb these basic guidelines over some of our playing fields and there are too often issues.

For example, in the football section, they spell out a 30-foot buffer from sideline/end line to any unpadded, hard, fixed object, 20 feet on bench areas. Watch a college football game on TV, especially the neutral site ones like bowl games. They will often violate this guideline with the marching bands and equipment staging on the sidelines or end lines right before halftime. Just ask Detroit Lions receiver Patrick Edwards about his college days. (YouTube-search Patrick Edwards injury).

It is in the best interest of the facility owners and the athletes that we all learn, identify and mitigate these field safety issues in a documented way. The sports field industry has always championed the field safety cause, and more and more people are listening. I can hear George Toma with one of his many bits of wisdom: “The cheapest insurance for any athlete is a good, safe playing surface.”