Yale Athletics

The Game has transpired in largely the same way since 1875, shaped by the same, immutable rivalry-transcending traditions. But for spectators who attend next year’s game in New Haven, something will be different for the first time since the Yale Bowl was built more than a century ago.

In December, City Plan commissioners gave the green light for the University to convert the Yale Bowl’s current grass playing surface into synthetic turf. “A group of football alumni” funded the transformation, Director of Athletics Vicky Chun told the News in a meeting last week, but an official announcement of the donation has not yet been released. According to Chun, the new field is the first of many steps that she hopes will revitalize the area around the Bowl and help it reclaim a spot in the national limelight.

But the upgrade has faced scrutiny from environmental activists and Yale scientists, including School of Public Health professor Vasilis Vasiliou, whose lab published a study in October finding that multiple chemicals in “crumb rubber” — the infill material of synthetic turf — are carcinogens. During the December City Hall meeting, Nancy Alderman ’94 FES ’97, president of Environment and Human Health — an organization composed of physicians, public health professionals and policy experts dedicated to protecting humans from environmental harms — staged an official petition objecting to the proposal and demanding that Yale Athletics give its student-athletes a healthier alternative.

“The grass on The Bowl is past the point of resodding,” Chun said in an interview. “The decision has gone through many people including several alumni and New Haven officials. The field turf will look spectacular, and it will allow for the [football] team to play and practice more often without destroying it.”

The Yale Bowl was built in 1914 with an unprecedented seating capacity of 65,000. During the 1973 and 1974 seasons, the stadium hosted New York Giants’ games while Yankee Stadium underwent renovations. The Bowl was even considered as a possible playing sight for the U.S.-hosted World Cup in 1994, but it ultimately lost out to Foxboro Stadium in Massachusetts.

According to Chun, the turf transformation will help restore The Bowl to its former glory by expanding the ways that the field can be used.

“It will allow for opportunities to host high school state tournaments and maybe even professional sports teams, just like the Giants’ games decades ago,” Chun said.

Football players interviewed by the News expressed excitement about the prospect of field turf. Quarterback Griffin O’Connor ’22, who said he has played on turf for most of his life, was excited about the new field because “[turf] makes the speed of the game a lot quicker.”

Defensive end J. Hunter Roman ’19 told the News that while he enjoys playing on grass, the condition of the field’s surface has gradually deteriorated over time. John Dean ’21, a linebacker, added that the football players fondly call The Bowl’s current grassy pitch “The Sandbox” because of the layers of sand added to the grass after each season to improve the field’s water infiltration and drainage.

“Grass is awesome to play on, it’s old school and there’s nothing like being covered in grass and dirt stains after a hard-fought game,” Roman said. “Unfortunately, for some reason, the condition of our field’s surface was not made a priority, so it deteriorated. … As an extremely historic program, it’s odd for us to make any major changes like [adding field turf], but the last two seasons have been proof that change is necessary. The grass in The Bowl has been mud for the majority of the last two seasons, which at times can be both difficult and dangerous to run on.”

Head Coach Tony Reno told the News that he is excited about the turf, which he said will “greatly improve the quality of surface that our student-athletes compete on, particularly late in the season” when the weather worsens.

Work on the new field will begin “once the thaw is gone,” according to Chun, and is slated for completion before the start of the next football season. When construction starts, a layer of concrete will be laid, on top of which the artificial turf will be placed. In the majority of cases, Vasiliou explained, miniature pieces of crumb rubber, commonly fabricated from recycled tires, will be sprinkled in between the turf.

“Based on the heat and humidity levels, the crumb rubber emits a lot of volatile organic compounds, some of which are carcinogenic,” Vasiliou said. “Within a year or two, you won’t develop cancer. But in the long term, the repeated exposure adds up.”

In a study assessing the material’s toxigenicity and carcinogenicity, Vasiliou’s team found that several chemicals in the crumb rubber that the Environmental Protection Agency has presumed or suspected to be cancer-causing. Vasiliou added that results from another, currently unpublished study that his lab is conducting suggest that the chemicals in the crumb rubber also exhibit endocrine disruption functions, which can negatively affect an athlete’s physiology and metabolism.

Alderman, the president of Environment and Human Health, told the News that she met with Chun in October to convince her of the potential dangers of synthetic turf. Alderman told the News that she left Chun documents and studies to hand to University President Peter Salovey but never heard back from Yale officials.

“Prior to my arrival, President Salovey commissioned a thorough study to review the installation of field turf,” Chun said in a response. “Once I arrived, I felt it was important to listen to [Alderman] and her colleagues and read through the materials they provided.”

Vasiliou said that in 2015, Salovey asked him to discuss the potential risks of a synthetic field with then-Director of Athletics Tom Beckett. During the meeting, Beckett asked Vasiliou if he would let his children play on turf.

“I said, ‘Of course not,’” Vasiliou told the News, and the sports administration ruled out the possibility of switching to turf.

But last year, Beckett announced his retirement and was succeeded by Chun, who did not reach out to Vasiliou. Chun told the News that the decision to install field turf in The Bowl was “not done in haste, but rather after extensive review and investigation.”

Chun added that the new turf may also play a role in preventing injuries and tears, which occur more frequently on “splotchy” grass surfaces like The Bowl’s current pitch.

Yale’s football program will become one of seven Ivy League programs with turf fields. Brown Stadium will remain the only football venue across the Ancient Eight with a natural grass field.

Lorenzo Arvanitis | lorenzo.arvanitis@yale.edu .