Posted: Thursday, July 01, 2010 9:00 AM
If you want to start an argument in Oregon, bring up the fact that Oregon State University -- a land-grant institution located in a region known as the Grass Seed Capital of the World -- has artificial turf on its football field.
Just mention the subject and step back, because everyone has an opinion.
Those who favor artificial turf argue that it is robust and well-suited for the wet Northwest fall weather. They recall past decades when football games became "mud bowls" as players churned up the rain-soaked dirt.
They also argue that natural turf fields years ago just couldn't stand up to use by the football team, intramural sports and other activities at OSU's Reser stadium.
"That was a big factor" when the latest artificial turf was installed five years ago, Steve Fenk, OSU's assistant athletic director, told the Capital Press last week.
To protect a natural field for the football team, he said he was afraid other sports and activities would have to be locked out of the stadium.
Those in favor of natural turf say it would serve as a showcase for the grass seed industry, a keystone of Oregon agriculture since the crop was introduced in the Willamette Valley 90 years ago. "What better venue is there than the football field of the state's land-grant university?" they ask.
They also cite biannual polls of the National Football League Players Association that show a clear preference for natural turf over artificial turf. Players believe artificial turf causes more injuries than natural turf, and some have even asked that all NFL fields be natural.
Artificial turf is also far from maintenance-free, they say. It must be cleaned, watered and raked. Depending on the type of artificial turf, it can also present a variety of health and injury concerns.
Heat build-up is also a concern. Surface temperatures of some artificial fields can exceed those of asphalt during a sunny day.
They even argue that artificial turf increases global warming when compared to oxygen-producing natural turf.
Around the world, natural turf is the preferred sports field. Organizers of the World Cup, now under way in South Africa, specified natural turf fields for all of its games. And those fields are planted with Oregon ryegrass and Washington- and Idaho-grown bluegrass.
"We're the worldwide leader in grass seed production," Roger Beyer, executive director of the Oregon Seed Council, said. "Our product has been used for Rose Bowls, Super Bowls and was used in the Beijing Olympics."
The argument gets even more complicated.
Both sides agree that huge advances in natural turf have been made in recent years. Not only is the turf robust, but drainage and soil systems have been developed that can handle the precipitation common to Western Oregon.
Experts, including those at OSU, agree that it's "more than feasible" to have a natural turf football field in wet Western Oregon.
To add to the complications, there are even "hybrid" fields that use natural turf reinforced with artificial strands of grass. Some NFL teams and colleges have adopted these hybrid natural turf fields with great success. Stadiums in Denver, Colo., and Green Bay, Wis., have a hybrid natural turf that the NFL player polls have given high marks.
Two of the fields in this year's World Cup are similar hybrid natural turf that, interestingly, uses Oregon grass seed. These hybrid fields, developed in Europe, appear to have the advantages of artificial fields without the disadvantages, proponents say.
So what's a university to do?
Because artificial turf has a finite life span -- usually eight to 10 years -- OSU administrators will confront the artificial turf quandary again in a few years. In preparation for that, it only makes sense to make the decision now that a natural turf field will be installed when that time comes.
Utilizing the expertise available right on campus and within the Oregon seed industry, they could have a field that is the envy of all their football rivals, including the University of Oregon, which is also located in grass seed country but uses artificial turf.
The time has come for OSU to take advantage of advances in the turf industry and adopt a natural system that is attractive, protective of the athletes and home-grown.
If natural turf fields are good enough for the NFL, the Olympics and the World Cup, they're certainly good enough for Oregon State University.