Recent criticism from the head of the NFLPA brought the spotlight back to conditions at Soldier Field. He and many others were quick to blame the NFL, since they’re supposed to be certifying every field before every game. However the real reason behind Soldier Field’s shoddy grass is more complicated.
Blame the NFL
Blaming the NFL is easy: they make the big money and should clearly be responsible for field conditions. But just how rigorous are their certifications? What standards are they using and who is actually certifying fields?
According to the NFL, experts use 3 criteria for certifying natural turf field conditions. They measure how easily grass separates from the soil in 9 locations. They also estimate the percentage of the field that the grass is actually covering, again in 9 locations. And they also give the field an overall rating between 1-10.
I don’t know how to gauge the ease with which grass separates from soil, but it’s probably safe to assume that as long as the grass doesn’t fall right out then it passes their check. But estimating how much of the field is grass and not dirt seems like a no-brainer, if you just look at it from the stands.
Another issue with the NFL’s policy is who these experts are who certify fields. The NFL has no readily available information on who they hire to do this, and neither does the Bears organization.
Blame the Bears
Another reasonable target for criticism on Soldier Field’s condition is the Bears organization itself. The NFL’s field certification policy states that “Home teams are responsible for ensuring their fields meet NFL standards.” But if the team is also the one certifying the conditions on the field, then how does the NFL verify the actual conditions? Is it just a rubber stamp process?
Teams shouldn’t simply be able to promise that their field conditions are playable. Even the Bears’ own kicker Cairo Santos was troubled by the shoddy grass. Fans deserve more from their teams, especially when they actually show up to home games.
Blame the Chicago Park District
Some people from outside Chicago may not know that the Bears do not actually own Soldier Field. The city owns the field, and it leases it out for all kinds of events as well as the MLS team Chicago Fire. But the Chicago Bears grounds crew doesn’t work for the city, so for all those other events there are other grounds crews. Whether or not they have a similar level of understanding of and appreciation for Soldier Field, who knows.
This may become part of the Bears’ argument for moving to Arlington Heights. If they can guarantee that their own grounds crew will always be working on the field rather than anyone the city might hire, that could improve the consistency of the field’s condition.
Blame Them All!
There really isn’t one person or organization responsible for the recurring poor condition of Soldier Field’s grass. Thanks to this mess of bureaucracy created by Chicago, the NFL, and the Bears all pushing responsibility onto each other, they’re all partly to blame. They’ll complain about the weather and all the foot traffic from concerts and shows, but if they could figure out a better way to manage the field there would be a lot less pockmarks on gameday.
The NFL should bring all the responsibilities for certifying field conditions under one group that they directly administer. If you want each field to give roughly equal playing conditions as all the other fields, then each team can’t be working on their own. There has to be an agreement among the “certification experts” on what the different criteria look like when put into practice.
When stadiums are owned by cities or other organizations, that needs to be put into the lease agreement as well. The NFL should never rely on grounds crews not vetted by NFL teams to make sure that field conditions are good for NFL games. Those crews simply don’t have the experience of managing a football field full time, and NFL players and fans deserve better.
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