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The 49ers’ Super Bowl practice field controversy, explained

For a second straight year, there are field quality concerns at the Super Bowl.

Super Bowl LVIII - San Francisco 49ers Practice Photo by Chris Unger/Getty Images

The grass is not, in fact, always greener on the other side. That’s at least what the San Francisco 49ers would apparently tell you about the quality of the practice field at their current home away from home.

In preparation of their upcoming Super Bowl LVIII matchup with the Kansas City Chiefs, the 49ers are practicing at the UNLV facility in Las Vegas. A standard three practices are planned leading up to the game.

However, the quality of work might be impacted by the quality of what’s underneath the players’ feet: the surface of the UNLV practice field has raised concerns this week.

Let’s explain.

What is the problem?

CBS Sports’ Jonathan Jones reported earlier this week that the 49ers were unhappy with the quality of the practice fields at UNLV. Whereas the team would like its field at a firmness of 70g, the field installed by the NFL — which are two natural grass fields on top of the original artificial turf fields — measures at only 50g. The resulting product was described as “spongy“ and that there are seams visible on the surface.

Concerns about the field quality were reportedly raised during a visit last week. The 49ers’ logistics team consisting of members of both their ground crew and equipment staff were first to notice issues, with general manager John Lynch later also inspecting the situation.

However, the club decided against taking any drastic action like altering its schedule or moving practice elsewhere on relatively short notice.

“We’re not going to completely change our schedule and do something crazy,” head coach Kyle Shanahan explained on Monday. “We’ll deal with what we got.”

One of the problems when it comes to any complaints is that the firmness of the field is not below the safety thresholds established by all shareholders involved: even though San Francisco’s players are used to practicing on a denser field, the surface at UNLV meets NFL and NFLPA standards, which stipulate that the firmness has to be below 100g — something that is the case here.

How do the 49ers’ players feel?

At least publicly, San Francisco’s players downplayed the issue so far this week.

“I’m playing football in February. I have nothing to complain about,” tight end George Kittle said during Super Bowl Opening Night on Monday. “I’m in Las Vegas, at the Super Bowl playing football with my teammates for an extra week. There’s only two teams doing it. I have nothing to complain about. No issues for me.”

Cornerback Charvarius Ward echoed Kittle’s remarks.

“We’re not playing on it, so we’re not tripping,” he said. “I’m not concerned at all. I can run full speed at any surface. I played football on the street as a kid.”

Obviously, though, public statements may not reflect how the organization really feels about the field. And it seems as a whole, the team is not happy: according to Kyle Posey of Niners Nation, “it doesn’t take an expert to watch and hear Shanahan’s tone and body language to figure out he was biting his tongue and unhappy with the team’s situation.”

What does the NFL say?

League commissioner Roger Goodell held his annual Super Bowl press conference on Monday. When asked about field quality, he took a hard stance.

“We’ve had 23 experts out there,” Goodell said. “We’ve had the union out there. All of them think that’s a very playable surface. It’s softer than what they have practiced on, but that happens. It’s well within all of our testing standards. It is something that we think – all of our experts, as well as neutral field inspectors – have all said, unanimously, that it’s a playable field.”

Of course, this is not the first time the league is confronted with questions about its playing surface. Just last year, the actual Super Bowl field at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, AZ, was deemed too slippery and criticized by players on both sides.

Longtime NFL groundskeeper George Toma later slammed NFL field director Ed Mangan for overwatering the playing surface and not giving it enough sunlight in the lead-up to the game.

What does the NFLPA say?

Initially, the player union refrained from addressing the problem. However, on Wednesday, NFLPA President JC Tretter took the 49ers’ side over the perspective presented by Roger Goodell earlier in the week.

“Playable is not the same standard as high quality,“ Tretter said. ”That’s not what we should be doing. We want high-quality surfaces to play on and practice on, and we don’t have that down there.”

Them’s fightin’ words, but those do not change the playing surface at UNLV.

How about the Chiefs?

There have been no complaints from the Chiefs this week about their own practice surface. They are working at the Las Vegas Raiders’ facility.

Super Bowl LVIII will be played at the Raiders’ home arena, Allegiant Stadium, and on a natural grass surface.

Will any of this matter on Sunday?

That is the big question. While the 49ers have been forced out of their comfort zone, it appears they have to accept their fate and make the most out of the situation: they still plan to practice at the UNLV campus this week, even with the field in — from their point of view — a sub-par shape.

Will the practice field being 20g too light really make a difference once the game against the Chiefs is kicked off, though? That will probably be hard to quantify, but depending on how the game ends it would not be a surprise if the saga will continue beyond Super Bowl Sunday.