Monday, October 27, 2014

Plastic Grass and Level Playing Fields

While the U.S. Women's National team has qualified for the 2015 World Cup (and, if you remember, that was not a given four years ago), the question remains: on what surface will its members be playing?

You may have heard that FIFA, in its imperial wisdom, has sanctioned next summer's Women's World Cup in Canada to be held at six venues, all of which have artificial turf. Unlike in 1994, when U.S. Soccer was required to lay natural turf fields over the artificial surfaces of the Pontiac Silverdome and The Meadowlands (which, admittedly, were vastly inferior AstroTurf as opposed to today's FieldTurf), FIFA has not required the Canadian Soccer Association to alter the turf of the host stadia for the 2015 tournament to comply with what has been a consistent FIFA requirement: that World Cup matches take place only on natural grass.

In responding to concerns over requiring women to play on plastic grass next summer, FIFA czar Sepp Blatter has declared that "artificial pitches are the future." Well, for women anyway. While many clubs in the Russian professional leagues have fake grass due to the extreme winters, there hasn't been even the faintest whisper that any of the venues for the 2018 men's World Cup will be played on artificial turf. The same for Qatar and its 110F summers, which are seemingly not conducive to growing grass (it's a desert!) and the pitches for the 2022 tournament.

Blatter has also responded by cranking up the FIFA propaganda machine, with its Head of Women's Competitions Tatjana Haenni declaring that "we play on artificial turf and there is no Plan B" for the Canadian games and by directing that a Roger Goodell-esque "interview" be performed with "independent consultant Prof Eric Harrison" in which the virtues of plastic pitches are touted and the merits of installing temporary real grass fields are poo-pooed. 

The reaction of women players to FIFA' double-standard has been emphatic and increasingly militant. It appears that, left out of the inscrutable process that is decision-making in FIFA, they've decided that they've got nothing to lose by actually fighting back. Megan Rapinoe, never one to mince words, summed up her reaction to FIFA's inaction in response to unofficial entreaties from women asking to play on real grass like their male counterparts, this way: "Maybe you're not having a thousand times more injuries [on turf], but there's an aspect to the purity of the game and the quality of the game that is played on grass that is different on turf. They can say what they want, but it's all bullshit to me."

Tell it like it is Megan (photo from

Instead of just engaging in what would likely be a losing war of words, the women decided to take action. Earlier this month they filed an application before the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario seeking a ruling that FIFA and the CSA be ordered to provide "proper, lawful playing surfaces [i.e., grass turf] for FIFA Women's World Cup Canada 2015."

The complaint contains a damning laundry list of past discrimination against women by FIFA and the CSA as well as an extensive analysis of the dangers and game-altering properties of fake grass. Amusingly, the players' counsel turns FIFA's words on itself, quoting from an article in the March 14, 2014 FIFA magazine "The Weekly" in which an English journalist examined the use of plastic pitches by four MLS teams and stated that "non-grass pitches are widely regarded as deeply problematic."

While in their complaint the players do refer to numerous studies that establish a possible link to increased lower extremity injuries to turf fields and the certainty that minor injuries (contusions and abrasions) occur with greater frequency on fake grass, the primary emphasis in the complaint is simply that FIFA and the CSA are clearly comfortable with requiring women to play on inferior surfaces as opposed to their male counterparts. This strikes me as a smart strategy -- arguing fundamental fairness is much less complicated than quibbling over whether or how much the risk of substantial injury is increased when playing on turf instead of grass.

In support of their assertion that there is a clear mandate that men's games be played on real grass, the players quote CSA officials who have declared in the past that play on turf for male World Cup qualifying matches is a "dealbreaker" and that the surface that that men's team plays on "has to be grass." They also cite FIFA's past and on-going requirement that World Cup matches take place on real grass, mentioning the Silverdome, The Meadowlands, and the future World Cups to be held in Russia and Qatar (seriously, Qatar). 

The players also note that FIFA "invited" female players to express whether they had a preference to play on grass or turf (the vast majority responded in favor of the former) and then promptly ignored their input. Finally, the players seek an expedited ruling on their application to allow FIFA and the CSA sufficient time to comply with the Tribunal's anticipated ruling before the games begin next June.

Having had Canadian courts described recently to me as "California on steroids" as far as their proclivity to find for litigants asserting discrimination, I find it difficult to believe that the Tribunal will find against the players. This seems rather clear-cut gender discrimination.

While undoubtedly FIFA and the CSA will oppose the players' application, it's difficult to conjure up many good arguments that they will have in response. The usual recourse followed by FIFA, to ignore or obfuscate issues, is not going to work this time around. The response that "there's no Plan B" won't either. And certainly, if it reads the same handwriting on the wall, it is not in either organization's interests to attempt to delay the proceedings since it will only make identifying alternative stadia or planning to overlay existing turf fields well in advance of the competition more problematic. 

My guess is that there are two different sets of conversations taking place in bowels of FIFA and the CSA right now: one in which FIFA, the CSA, and their lawyers are trying to figure out how to respond to the application without looking like bigger misogynists than it already depicts them to be; and the second between FIFA and the CSA to figure out who is going to foot the bill for the temporary surfaces. 

If we've learned anything about Blatter, it's that his only true concern is FIFA's bottom line. It would be completely consistent for him to be less concerned at this point with defending the "pitch of the future" and more worried about how he can strong-arm the CSA into paying for the renovations while holding on to every penny of proceeds that he can from the tournament.

Will the women play on grass next summer? There's a very good chance they will. Will it be FIFA that pays for the same playing surface that it demands for its male players? There's a better chance that the 2022 World Cup will be held in the middle of a desert in July.
Footnote: The only World Cup match I have seen in person was at the Silverdome in 1994. The U.S. men played Switzerland to a 1-1 draw thanks to a fantastic free kick by Eric Wynalda. What I remember most about the game was it was the most miserably hot I have ever been for an extended period of time (well, until I spent three days in a field in Southern Tennessee in July). The Silverdome wasn't air conditioned and since it was a true domed stadium, they had to keep it ridiculously humid to try to keep the grass alive, without sun, for as long as possible. The first step into the arena was like walking into a sauna.

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