For athletes, new turf infill means old problems
In May of 2018, the Montgomery County Board of Education voted seven to one to approve the installation of a $1.3 million turf field at Whitman, despite controversy surrounding its infill material, ZeoFill. At the time, community members expressed concern about the lack of publicly available research on ZeoFill’s safety and durability.
Four years, two field closures and one infill replacement later, athletes remain worried that the turf poses a danger to their safety and their athletic careers.
Last year’s closures and subsequent infill replacement brought hope that the slipperiness, drainage problems and dust clouds that had come to define the artificial field would finally subside. However, some still feel that the field remains unsafe for play.
Since April 2022, Whitman’s athletes have played on BrockFill, a wood particle-based infill that is engineered to provide greater traction, durability and drainage than its competitors. The school district installed BrockFill after officials determined that the field was failing to adequately drain after rainfall. However, according to varsity football player Talan Penberthy, a junior, BrockFill hasn’t proved itself a satisfactory replacement.
For Penberthy, the engineered wood particles beneath the playing surface are uncomfortable during physically-involved games and practices when the team is commonly on the ground.
“When I first fell, my elbow turned to shreds,” Penberthy said. “The way my cleat would dig into the turf felt off compared to other turf.”
He’s noticed that other MCPS high schools offer more playable turf with greater traction than Whitman’s field, he said.
In October 2021, varsity girls soccer goalkeeper Abby Fletcher, a senior, was stepping to punt the ball during a game when her feet slipped on the turf and she tumbled backward. Fletcher landed on her arm, breaking it in an injury that sidelined her for three months. She directly attributes her injury to the field’s slippery conditions, she said. Since the repairs in the spring of 2022, Fletcher has noticed clear improvements to the turf’s surface, she said, but the field’s lack of traction still demands the county’s attention. This is especially important because the field becomes more slippery over the course of the season due to use, Fletcher said.
“It’s definitely gotten better, but it’s still not great,” she said. “It’s not as dusty but it’s still slippery. I think it’s better than last year, but who knows what it’s going to be like in three years when the turf’s worn down again.”
In an interview with The Black & White, principal Robert Dodd said that the turf has improved from the last series of repairs, especially in its ability to drain water effectively. However, administration and maintenance will continue to keep a close eye on its condition, he said.
“I certainly think it’s improved since the latest round of repairs,” he said. “What I’ve learned in this is that the assumption that you can install a turf field and then [conclude that] hey, we’re good, we don’t have to worry about it — that’s incorrect.”
Despite its tumultuous five-year tenure as the playing surface at the Jerome Marco Stadium, the field has a complex history. Before the summer of 2018, Whitman athletes played on a natural grass field. Beginning in June of 2018, the installation of the turf continued despite debate over the safety of the clinoptilolite zeolite mineral-based Zeofill infill. Many in the community doubted that Zeofill was an ideal option, citing an absence of research on how safe and durable the infill was. Less than a year later, in late 2019, independent tests revealed that the artificial turf’s surface didn’t provide enough traction for safe athletic competition. The surface didn’t conform with the FIFA industry standards for friction in addition to the fact that athletes were kicking up dust from the field’s surface. Then, in 2021, administrators and MCPS officials closed the field for the fall sports season as a preemptive safety measure.
“We’re constantly monitoring how the surface is playing, whether it’s safe for students and in the event that anything needs to be fixed, that it’s done promptly and well,” Dodd said.
MCPS replaced the Zeofill infill during the winter, citing drainage problems, preventing spring teams from playing on the field for the first month and a half of their season. However, the new BrockFill infill presented its own issues for the field, said varsity girls soccer player Evelyn Javers, a sophomore.
“It’s still very slippery, especially when wet, and lots of the wood pellets pile up in the field,” she said. “When you kick or move, [that] kicks them up.”
The field is undergoing consistent and close maintenance to ensure that the replacement of Zeofill with Brockfill is successful and that the field is performing as expected.
“The field is maintained each month and infill depth and grooming are performed to ensure optimal performance,” MCPS Public Information Director Jessica Baxter wrote in an email to The Black & White. “Remediation was performed to address drainage issues and is continuing to be monitored to ensure proper performance.”
However, the recent infill replacement has led athletes like Javers to believe that the underlying problem isn’t the age of the infill — but instead, its material. An ideal infill, she said, would stay under the turf during play and not interfere with athletes’ ability to perform at their best. BrockFill’s manufacturers tout its durability, but the turf field is far from problem-free, Javers said.
Although the infill draws criticism from athletes, it’s not the only topic of concern on the field. Beneath the synthetic turf and the infill lays Brock’s PowerBase PRO, an expanded polypropylene-based foundation. According to varsity boys soccer defender Davis Hackel, a junior, the field doesn’t contain sufficient padding between the foundation and the playing surface.
“[The foundation] makes the field have less traction than it should,” Hackel said. “I have shin splints and my legs feel like they’re splintering on the hard turf.”
He believes that the field’s hardness exacerbates joint pain and increases the severity of injuries that would typically be insignificant for athletes, he said. However, an April 2022 test indicated that the field had a GMAX level of 119, which falls within the acceptable range for athletes.
According to Dodd, school officials are working with turf field experts from the county to ensure that the field is safe for athletic competition.
“Mr. Wetzel, the athletic specialist, and myself are continually working with the Division of Construction in MCPS, and specifically, a turf field specialist, to ensure that we’re constantly monitoring how the surface is playing, whether it’s safe for students and in the event that anything needs to be fixed, that it’s done promptly and well,” he said.
As the spring sports season begins, athletes will put the turf field to the test with each game and practice. However, for players like Hackel, the artificial surface will continue to resemble slippery concrete more than than natural grass, he said.
“The field’s only nice to play on because it’s flat,” Hackel said. “Slip and slide concrete isn’t a place I would recommend training on.”