On Jan. 21 a group of more than 40 female soccer players dropped a gender discrimination lawsuit against FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association. The complaint was filed in October, opposing FIFA’s decision to hold the upcoming Women’s World Cup tournament on synthetic turf instead of real grass. The men’s games have never been played on artificial turf, and the next two men’s tournaments, in 2018 and 2022, will be played on real grass.
The symbolism of giving an inferior turf to female athletes runs much deeper than the surface of a pitch. By placing the Women’s Cup on an inferior surface, soccer’s governing body reinforced what we have been telling female athletes for decades: Their game is second-class. It is also the same subtle message we send to girls and women everywhere, every day: They deserve less. Even more harmful, fans, administrators, families, coaches and teachers appear comfortable with women’s getting less. The players’ decision to withdraw their suit validates this differential treatment, but we should support — not blame — them.
To be sure, the players were not legally compelled to abandon the case. “Our legal action has ended,” U.S. striker Abby Wambach, said in a statement. “But I am hopeful that the players’ willingness to contest the unequal playing fields — and the tremendous public support we received during the effort — marks the start of even greater activism to ensure fair treatment when it comes to women’s sports.”
Initially, FIFA stonewalled the discussion. Now it claims to have the best for women’s soccer in mind, without any acknowledgment of the complaint. “We — the participating teams and the organizers — can now all focus on the preparation and promotion of the biggest event in women’s football this June in Canada,” FIFA’s Secretary General Jerome Valcke said on Jan. 21, responding to the players’ decision to drop the case. It is ironic coming from the same man who in December dismissed the lawsuit as “nonsense.” Essentially, FIFA wants the athletes and their supporters to move on and forget that a very real case of discrimination is present and be content with the promotion for the tournament.
FIFA’s arguments in favor of synthetic turf relate to the material conditions and structures of the field — its durability, consistency and simple maintenance. The players emphasize the effect of the artificial turf on performance and their bodies: It is unsafe and can eliminate creativity in the game. These opposing arguments represent a significant, albeit subtle distinction that can prompt us to think about where value is being placed.
So often women feel lucky just to be given a team and a field to play on and compete. The inequality is so internalized that they rarely speak up and challenge accepted norms and standards. And when they do speak up, their voices are often discredited or silenced. For example, several years ago a women’s national team player (country to be left unidentified for the protection of the player) was cut from the roster for holding up a sign asking the national soccer federation to provide more support for the women’s game. Similarly, in the current turf case, some soccer authorities reportedly threatened players with suspension if they protested. Is it any wonder then that Canadian players, whose soccer federation doubles as the 2015 cup’s organizing committee, were not part of the discrimination suit?
In the United States, all federally funded educational programs are required by law to invest equally in men and women. While Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 created increased opportunities and access to participation for girls, it relegated them to second-best treatment. Schools increased the number of teams and resources for girls’ sports but did not give them the same value as boys’. This translated into girls’ softball teams walking past the boys’ baseball stadiums on their way to training, women’s soccer teams playing their games on the field without lights, women’s lacrosse teams playing their matches earlier in the day when no fans could attend. And the reality remains the same — more than 40 years after Congress passed the Title IX — at every level and everywhere. Girls and women are participating, but we are still not giving them equal benefits and treatment.
FIFA’s decision to use synthetic turf reflects this deeply rooted dynamic on a global scale. The courageous players who challenged the degrading decision, including my former teammate Carli Lloyd of Team USA, could not do it alone. They were obliged to give up their legal case to focus on the preparation for the game. But we have the opportunity to pick up where they left off and ensure that this remains a visible and relevant issue.
We may not see grass pitches installed at Canada 2015, but we cannot join Canada Soccer’s President Victor Montagliani in being “pleased to be moving beyond this discussion.” The conversation must continue during the cup and well beyond the tournament’s July 6 final. And the debate should not be confined to the sports pages in newspapers. FIFA’s turf decision affects society as a whole and reflects deeper values that rarely surface but whose roots extend far beyond the perimeter of the field. Accepting that women should play on substandard fields is the same as accepting a gender pay gap. The turf issue is not petty sports debate. It is about real rights.