Making Green: Turf Fields and Socioeconomic Disparity in the IAAM
May 16, 2016
Mercy High School’s current grass field is notoriously low quality. It is patchy, uneven, and the space for spectators is limited. As the only field at the school (with the exception of the softball field), it is frequently in use; JV and Varsity soccer, field hockey, and lacrosse all practice and play on the field. However, Mercy often plays teams from schools which have artificial turf fields. Artificial turf is made of synthetic fibers that resemble natural grass, and is popular for field sports because it can withstand heavy usage. Although the initial costs are high (approximately one million dollars) and the turf must be replaced approximately every ten years, artificial turf fields can be used in all weather and theoretically can be a source of revenue if they are rented out.
Mercy’s sports play in the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland (IAAM), the athletic league of women’s sports at independent schools in Maryland. The IAAM includes a wide range of schools, from coed Catholic schools to all-girls private boarding schools. Although all of these schools are private and require their students to pay tuition, the exact cost of attending these schools varies widely, with the highest tuition for day school being $31,000, and the lowest being $11,000.
There are thirty-one schools in the IAAM. Seventeen of these schools have artificial turf fields, and fourteen do not. Of the schools that have artificial turf, the average annual tuition is approximately $22,300 and for schools without artificial turf the average tuition is approximately $17,000. The difference between these values becomes even larger if high-quality natural grass fields (such as Bermuda grass), which play similarly to artificial turf but require much more maintenance, are included with schools that have artificial turf. Of course, whether or not a school has an artificial turf field is dependent on more than tuition; it is likely that the field was not paid for exclusively by money coming from student tuition. However, it does make a powerful statement about socioeconomic disparity, and how much of life it affects — even high school sports.
Jillian Scott ‘16, who has played field hockey since she was in sixth grade and played at Mercy for three years, finishing her senior season as a captain, said that she probably plays on turf fields about “a quarter of the time.” In the IAAM Field Hockey C Conference, which Mercy’s Varsity field hockey team plays in, this is accurate; only one of the four teams in the conference has an artificial turf field, although one team does have a highly-maintained Bermuda grass field. Scott said that the differences in play are mostly related to speed. “[On an artificial turf field] you need to push less, use less force… On a grass field, you definitely have more control.” To Scott, although “a grass field is home advantage… whenever [other teams] come to our field, they’re blown off,” she believes that “you need practice on a turf field.” Scott emphasized the difference in speed in the play of field hockey on a grass versus an artificial turf field, as did Caroline Cummings ‘16, who has played on Varsity soccer and lacrosse since her freshman year and is committed to Drexel University to play Division I lacrosse next year. She said that for soccer the team “prepared differently for their games on turf than for games on our home grass field… on grass, the ball would probably only go half as far [as it would on turf].” Mr. Nick Gill, Athletic Director, made a similar point as Scott regarding the home advantage, saying “playing on turf, and then having to play on grass” is a big difficulty for other teams. However, he also noted that he doesn’t believe that turf is the defining factor of an athletic program’s success. “I don’t think that having a turf field automatically makes you a better program. It’s in the little things.”
The little things are bigger than they may seem, however. Having a turf field greatly increases the potential practice time of a team. As Cummings said, “Rain wouldn’t be a problem… there’d be no mud or injuries due to slipping in the mud to worry about. Games wouldn’t be cancelled as frequently because you can still play on turf when it rains.” If practice makes perfect, then having less practice time than another team can make a significant difference over time.
Another critical aspect of the turf issue is one of money. As turf fields can withstand more usage, they can be rented out to outside groups, earning revenue for the school. As Mr. Gill said, “if renting the field goes to athletics, that can be a big benefit.” The money earned could be used for better equipment, practice gear, and other items that can help a team be more efficient, boost team spirit, and attract young talent to the school.
As a status symbol, turf fields are coveted. Having a turf field allows a school to build its athletic program in ways that grass fields do not, and a strong athletic program makes a school attractive to many prospective students. The unfortunate reality, however, is that a school’s ability to have a turf field is related to the socioeconomic status of the school’s community, and furthermore it is probable that said turf field is a benefit for a school’s athletic program.
It is said that the wealthiest twenty percent of Americans possess eighty-five percent of the country’s wealth. This stark income inequality in America is mirrored in many aspects of society, from serious social issues to the most mundane of things. Although the level of wealth that the top twenty percent have achieved is unlikely to be that of the students and alumni of schools in the IAAM, schools with a community generally of higher income strata than others have the ability to attain certain goals (pun certainly intended) more easily. The success of athletic programs, while not wholly dependent on whether or not the school has a multi-million-dollar turf field, are certainly influenced by one. The lingering question of fairness in the IAAM, as well as other athletic leagues with similar demographic disparities, is not one with a quick-fix rule or standard; schools cannot be forced to purchase turf fields, and the disparity will only be enforced if schools could only play those with the same field type.
Perhaps, then, the best solution is to stay aware. While schools of a higher economic status will continue to be those with turf fields, and talented young athletes (of field sports) will continue to attend schools with turf fields, it is imperative for all to recall the reality of what a turf field means. Schools with less room in the budget may prioritize other projects, such as updated textbooks or maintaining school infrastructure. Although these are not as flashy as a verdant turf field with the school crest painted in the center, they are certainly important. As schools, including Mercy, continue to evaluate whether or not a turf field is a worthwhile project, as middle school athletes continue to consider high schools, and as student-athletes continue to play on a variety of field types, it is important to keep in mind that there is a correlation between economics, turf fields, and athletic success; one does not necessarily dictate another, but the connection still exists.
The “American Dream,” the idea that all Americans have equal opportunity to success, is an ideal that has only become less and less available to the average American. Athletic success in America is a lucrative pursuit. Millions of dollars in college scholarships are given every year to talented high school athletes, and professional athletes are compensated more highly than almost any other industry. If a turf field is a key to success on a local league level, a turf field may translate over time, and on a larger scale, to overall more individual athletic, and consequently financial, success. Financial freedom leads to success, and success leads to financial freedom, leaving turf fields as simply a microcosmic example of a much grander issue of socioeconomic disparity in Baltimore, the United States, and globally.