In sports, as in life, the rules of the game are different for women.
The current controversy surrounding playing surfaces at the upcoming Women’s World Cup serves to highlight this very fact.
For the first time in the history of any World Cup, the women’s tournament hosted in Canada in June 2015, will be played on turf as opposed to grass.
A photo (now famously tweeted by supporter Kobe Bryant) of US soccer star Sydney Leroux’s bruised and bloodied legs demonstrates the effect that the plastic surface can have on players’ bodies.
The perceived threat of injury on turf has been shown to cause players to alter their style of play, executing shorter passes and fewer slide tackles. That makes a difference at what should be the most elite level of play.
Tournament organizers FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association (CSA) refuse to acknowledge the problem, despite a massive outcry from some of the world’s best soccer players, coaches, and allies.
Now, more than 40 national team players from around the world are threatening to launch a human rights case against both organizations if the issue is not resolved.
The men’s 2018 and 2022 World Cups are both slotted to be on natural grass, and so players argue that the refusal to treat elite women athletes the same way as their male counterparts is gender discrimination.
During the 1994 men’s World Cup FIFA required that tournament organizers install grass on their fields. This past July a temporary grass field was brought into Michigan stadium for a match between Real Madrid and Manchester United. Even closer to home in 2011 the Vancouver Whitecaps installed grass at Empire Field as a requirement to play an exhibition match against Manchester City.
The point is that men playing at this elite world championship level would never put up with this kind of treatment. During their failed run for this year’s World Cup, the Canadian men’s team refused to play any of their qualifying matches on turf.
Those who argue against any changes to the current plan cite the various professional leagues that play their games on turf, including Major League Soccer, in which the Vancouver Whitecaps play.
But World Cup-level soccer would never be considered on the same tier as these leagues. And at this level, for the 2015 World Cup, the men are being given advantages that the women are not.
FIFA is expected to pull in a net profit of $2 billion from the World Cup in Brazil and so could easily allocate a miniscule portion of those funds towards improving the playing surfaces. Estimates put the cost of installing temporary grass fields at $150,000 to $400,000 per field – a fraction of FIFA or the CSA’s budget for the tournament.
Contrast that to what Brazil ($3.68 billion), South Africa ($1.48 billion) and Germany ($1.87 billion) spent on building and upgrading stadiums alone in the last three men’s World Cups.
Sexism in the soccer world is nothing new. We saw it in the UK Premier league chief’s sexist emails about female colleagues (for which he was neverpunished), World Cup advertising perpetuating worn out gender stereotypes, and FIFA head Sepp Blatt’s suggestion that women should play in tighter shorts to increase interest in their sport. And FIFA’s decision to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar has been roundly criticized due to the country’s horrendous human rights record vis-à-vis women and migrant workers.
The Canadian Soccer Association has also come under fire in recent years for refusing to reveal the funding formula that they apply to the men and women’s teams – presumably because they provide greater compensation to the men as opposed to female players. It’s worth noting the Canadian men’s team is ranked 122nd in the world while the women’s team is ranked seventh and recently brought home a bronze medal from the London Olympics.
The poster for the 2015 Women’s World Cup was unveiled recently. It’s a striking image of a strong woman with her head held high in the midst of play, and contains a mosaic of Canadian landscapes, mountains, prairies and ocean. It inspires pride in our country and pride in women in sport.
FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association’s decision sends the exact opposite message:that girls and women are not deserving of the same treatment that men receive.
It’s a message that I received as a young athlete, enduring countless cuts and scrapes playing on gravel fields while boys of my same age played on well-manicured greens.
What is true for so many women and girls around the world is being shown in our most elite athletes.