Patrick Willis

Two reasons why 49ers were justifiably stubborn about using natural grass at Levi’s Stadium

Levi's Stadium scoreboard

When the concerns about the grass at Levi’s Stadium reached a fevered … pitch (sorry), a lot of fans and observers asked two questions.

Why are they fielding so many events that have nothing to do with the 49ers if the sod is in such shoddy condition?

Why don’t they just install the fake stuff and conserve water?

The natural vs. artificial debate has changed in tone over the years, ever since the old style turf — which was really nothing more than an abrasive carpet with minimal padding laid over cement — started getting phased out in favor of a surface with longer, grass-like plastic embedded in bouncy crumbs made of ground up tire rubber.

There were a few reasons for the 49ers to go with grass.

— While maybe not to the degree that the old carpet would bake, the new artificial surfaces do get hotter, which would’ve been yet another storyline from recent warm/hot/scorching (depending on who you ask) games against the Eagles and Chiefs.

— Crumb rubber contains several toxic materials, such as phthalates, lead and arsenic, which would’ve put a dent in the idea that Levi’s is greener than the average sports facility.

— The 49ers have a long history of playing on grass — even though Candlestick Park had artificial turf from 1970-78, moving from the old stadium with grass to a new stadium in Santa Clara with the fake stuff wouldn’t have been popular among some fans.

The money difference is unclear. The 49ers have had to install two new fields in the past year, and water is at a premium. But artificial fields aren’t exactly cheap or even maintenance-free (the crumbs need to be raked so they don’t pile up in certain areas, and bodily fluids — either from humans or birds — don’t decompose as they would on grass … also, ew).

But this week brought up another reason why the 49ers might have been hesitant to go with the plastic-and-rubber combo, one that’s rooted in financial concerns to a certain extent.

Patrick Willis SF 49ers

The 49ers aren’t saying that Patrick Willis has turf toe. Maybe he doesn’t, but he’s listed on the team’s practice report as a non-participant this week due to a toe ailment. He’s worn a boot on his left foot since Monday’s game and isn’t expected to play in Denver. He’s “day-to-day” according to Jim Harbaugh, whatever that means.

Tramaine Brock 49ersPerhaps Willis was already dealing with soreness heading into the game in St. Louis, where a depressing stadium with a depressing name (Edward Jones Dome) features an artificial playing surface. But whether he aggravated the injury against the Rams or the injury popped up during the game out of nowhere, it’s not crazy to assume that the turf didn’t help his toe.

With Tramaine Brock missing the last five games and finally returning to practice this week after suffering a turf toe injury of his own on Jerry World’s carpet, the 49ers (who have an artificial playing surface for one of their practice fields, but do the majority of their work on the two grass fields) might want to take caution when looking at the schedule. They have remaining games at the Superdome and MetLife Stadium (which both use UBU-Intensity Series-S5-M Synthetic Turf) and CenturyLink (FieldTurf).

One of the reasons why the newer fake surfaces are popular — besides long-term cost and the logistics of keeping grass green during winter months — is that serious injuries on the new stuff haven’t been as prevalent as they were in the past. Players used to routinely tear their ACLs when cutting on the old style AstroTurf, and who knows how many concussions were caused simply by players’ heads hitting the ground.

But “turf toe” may still be a problem. If that’s what knocked Brock out all that time, and is also what’s keeping Willis from playing against the Broncos, one can see why the 49ers were so intent on using natural grass, even if their initial attempts were examples of “when keeping it real goes wrong.”

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