FIFA’s acceptance of the use of artificial turf for the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada has created an intense backlash from professional women’s soccer players worldwide. Abby Wambach, captain of and a forward on the US National Team, is one of the many players who are protesting and have threatened to file a lawsuit against FIFA for gender discrimination. Wambach claims that making the change from grass to artificial turf is “a gender issue through and through.”
Why the fuss over turf? Well, if the protest and a potential lawsuit prove unsuccessful, this could be considered the Plessey vs. Ferguson of women’s athletics. FIFA is a multibillion-dollar organization that has great influence and reach. Therefore, a change to the surface of the 2015 World Cup could set an unfortunate precedent or standard for all women’s sports on an ageless and global level. As in Plessey vs. Ferguson, FIFA would create (if they ultimately succeed) a separate but equal standard, in which women’s athletics could be modified for whatever reason without considering the negative repercussions and societal impact, including (but not limited to) gender-based discrimination.
Unfortunately, it seems that FIFA’s decision is a further reflection of the treatment of female athletes everywhere. As an athlete myself, a field hockey goalie, I can relate to the dissatisfaction that Wambach and other professional players have expressed. In high school, my varsity field hockey team, of which I was a member for four years, was expected to practice on the grass fields despite that field hockey is undeniably a turf sport. How was our team expected to perform better and succeed if our practice conditions were subpar? My team’s lack of accessibility to the turf was inherently a gender issue.
My high school’s football team was the principal reason why we did not have equal access to the turf field. Since their grass field needed to be in “perfect condition” for their weekend games, almost all football practices were held on the turf field instead. We too were a varsity team, yet we were not prioritized ahead of the JV and sometimes even the freshman football teams in terms of turf access. On those occasions when we were able to use the turf, we were generally confined to the little area behind the field goal to practice; it was a rarity to have access to the entire turf field. The quality of our game suffered because we could not practice regularly on the proper surface.
While my experience with the turf vs. grass situation is reversed from that of the women’s soccer players, the core of the issue is the same. If soccer is played on artificial turf, the game will be forced to change. Skills that these athletes have developed throughout their careers will no longer be useful; instead of bringing them great success, they are more likely to cause injury. Alex Morgan, of the US National Team, shares her frustration with artificial turf in terms of injury prone-ness: “…many of the injuries I’ve had in the past have come from artificial turf…[on turf] the game is played differently…a lot of players don’t play the same way on turf as on grass, because they don’t want to go down for a slide tackle or do a diving header.”
In a sport that requires its players to slide several times a game, artificial turf is not feasible. If FIFA really thought artificial turf was a brilliant idea, they would have installed it this past summer for the Men’s World Cup in Brazil; yet, FIFA is not looking to change the surface for either the 2018 or 2022 Men’s World Cup. This is inexcusable and a violation of gender equality in sports.
With all of this in mind, we seem to be at a pivotal moment in women’s athletics: should women be treated equally, or should they maintain a “separate but equal” stance?
About the author: Emily is a senior Art History and Studio Art joint major at Middlebury College. She is also a member of the field hockey team there. Although Women and Gender Studies is not her major, she is an unapologetic feminist and has integrated it into her studies.