Fake Turf is Sexist!

The best women soccer players in the world want to play on real grass next summer when the World Cup comes to Canada next year. That’s what the World Cup men play on. That’s the surface they think offers less chance of injuries, and on which the ball is easier to control. And that’s why they’ve now filed a lawsuit before the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal against the Canadian Soccer Association and FIFA, the hugely powerful international soccer federation.

Star players Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan are well-known American names on the lawsuit, and they’re joined by such elite international socceristas as Germany’s Nadine Angerer, Brazil’s Fabiana Da Silva Simões, Spain’s Verónica Boquete, France’s Camille Abily, Japan’s Yuki Ogimi and South Korea’s Ji So Yun. The lawsuit states that some other players who wanted to be “applicants” in the suit were afraid of retribution from their national soccer federations.

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The lawsuit brilliantly spells out the inherent sex discrimination in forcing women to play on a less desirable surface than men do. It starts by excerpting a FIFA statute that reads,

Football [soccer] is a powerful means of enabling women to fulfill their potential both in sport and in society. No woman should be subject to discrimination, abuse or disadvantage because of her gender. Football will be a leader in carrying this message to the world.

Uh, no. Not if FIFA doesn’t walk its talk. Instead, according to the lawsuit, it expects women to play on a “second-class surface,” thus devaluing their “dignity, state of mind and self-respect.”

The field of play is a big deal to soccer players, the lawsuit points out. When the Canadian men’s team was playing qualifying matches in preparation for this year’s World Cup, the Canadian Soccer Association insisted that “it has to be grass” rather than artificial turf. And the women players understand why: As explained in the lawsuit,

The role of the field in soccer is more analogous to the ice in hockey, and the artificial turf proposal for the women’s World Cup is akin to forcing elite female hockey players to compete and skate on soft, slushy ice while the men while the men play on a pristine rink—except that the soccer discrimination is arguably more dangerous. In hockey, unlike soccer, the players wear extensive protective gear.

The lawsuit also suggests that it’s not surprising FIFA would conduct itself in a sexist manner, as the organization has a self-described “macho” culture. Run since 1998 by Sepp Blatter of Switzerland, all the FIFA vice presidents are men, as are 15 of the 16 members of the executive committee. When a woman finally ran and was elected to that committee last year, Blatter called her a “good-looking candidate.” Ten years ago, Blatter also urged women soccer players to “wear tighter shorts.”

Even if the World Cup in Canada doesn’t switch to different soccer stadiums, real sod can be successfully laid over artificial turf as a temporary solution. Yes, it might cost several million dollars to do so, but FIFA reportedly has cash reserves of $1.4 billion, according to the lawsuit.

It’s remarkable and right that this suit considers sports sexism to be a human rights violation. After all, for millions of viewers around the globe, sport is an extraordinary social rite—a celebration of the human spirit. No one who watched it, for example, will ever forget the USA women’s team beating China on penalty kicks at the 1999 World Cup, with Brandi Chastain then whipping off her shirt in a gesture of triumph.

And yes, they were playing on real grass.

Photo of members of the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team in 2012 from Flickr user Nicole Miller under license from Creative Commons 2.0

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Michele Kort is senior editor of Ms. She’s also the author of Soul Picnic: The Music and Passion of Laura Nyro.




The late Michele Kort—a dedicated feminist—was the senior editor of Ms. magazine for 13 years. She died June 26, 2015, after a long battle with ovarian cancer. She worked for decades in field of journalism, covering sports, music, culture, art and feminist issues for publications like LA Weekly, The Advocate, Shape, Redbook, Los Angeles Times Magazine, Songwriter, InStyle, Living Fit, Fit Pregnancy, Vegetarian Times, Fitness, UCLA Magazine, Women's Sports and Fitness and more. She is the author of four books, including a biography of singer/songwriter Laura Nyro, Soul Picnic: The Music and Passion of Laura Nyro. Rest in power, Michele.