The idea that forcing women to play on artificial turf amounts to gender discrimination boggles the mind, particularly when synthetic alternatives are so common in elite sport – women’s and men’s. But some of the world’s top female soccer players are threatening to take FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association to court over the lack of natural greenery at the 2015 Women’s World Cup.
It’s a legal long shot. It also takes a practical question – what is the best field for a soccer game? – and tries to shoehorn it, uncomfortably, into an argument about constitutional rights. The claimants, as they would surely be the first to admit, aren’t exactly Rosa Parks.
It’s true that many players, in a variety of field sports, prefer grass to synthetic turf. But many leagues, including the Canadian Football League and some major European and North American men’s soccer teams, play on artificial turf. Some of the complainants already spend their days training and competing on artificial turf.
The players’ claims that turf is dangerous are dubious. Early synthetic surfaces were notoriously hard and associated with higher rates of injury, but most research on the latest generation of turf – which often includes a soft infill of sand and rubber – suggests there is no overall difference in safety.
In choosing venues for the competition, FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association also have to consider the bottom line. The recent men’s World Cup was played on lush Brazilian lawns, but that event brought in an estimated $4-billion in revenue (and received huge government subsidies). The Women’s World Cup has no such budget. It will also be played in temperate Canada, not tropical Brazil.
But if we shift from a courtroom argument about legal rights to a discussion of what’s best for the beauty of the so-called beautiful game, might the complainants have a case?
Some of the Canadian host cities have grass-lined stadiums. In some cases, such as in Moncton, that grass will be covered over with turf for the Women’s World Cup. Organizers seem to have believed that they had to choose between temporarily covering existing grass fields with artificial turf, or covering turf fields with grass. They decided on the former. Was that the best choice? Good question. The women’s players who have raised it are right to do so. We’re just not sure a court is the referee qualified to make that call.