On The Women’s FIFA World Cup Turf War

On The Women’s World Cup Turf War

Navigating The Complexities Of The Controversy

By Professor Cesar R. Torres (The College at Brockport, State University of New York) & Professor Douglas W. McLaughlin (California State University Northridge)

June 10, 2015         Patrick Doyle/REUTERS.

This article is part of The Critique Exclusive The Philosophy of Sport In Practice Part I: The FIFA World Cup.

On March 3, 2011, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) announced that it had granted the right to host the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup, to be held from June 6 to July 5, to the Canadian Soccer Association (CSA). That same day, Dominic Maestracci, then the CSA’s president, stated that the event “will have a lasting impact on the sport in this country.”[i] While Maestracci did not articulate the kind of legacy he envisioned, it is highly unlikely that what has become known as the “turf war” was part of it.

The turf war refers to the controversy over the surface on which the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup’s matches would be played. Numerous women players, including some of the sport’s luminaries such as U.S. star Abby Wambach, have been critical since the CSA’s decision to use artificial grass in the tournament was made public. In 2013, a large group of women players signed a petition urging FIFA and the CSA to use natural grass in the tournament instead of artificial grass. In light of their refusal to change the playing surface, last year these players filed a lawsuit with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario in Toronto against FIFA and the CSA amounting to gender discrimination and requiring that the tournament be played on natural grass. With FIFA showing no interest in a compromise that would have allowed the semifinal and final rounds of the tournament to be played on natural grass, the lawsuit was withdrawn earlier this year.[ii] In spite of their inability to have the playing surface switched to natural grass, Wambach said she was hopeful the players’ commitment to challenge gender discrimination and the public support they drew during their campaign “marks the start of even greater activism to ensure fair treatment when it comes to women’s sports.”[iii]

Throughout their campaign, the women players opposing the use of artificial grass made their case based on three main arguments. First, they claimed that this was an instance of gender discrimination because the FIFA Men’s World Cup has never been played on artificial grass. Most elite players, women and men, consider artificial grass an inferior playing surface. Even more, it has already been established that the next two FIFA Men’s World Cups, in 2018 and 2022, will be played on natural grass. Wambach summarized this argument avowing that women players “want to be treated equal and we want to be playing on grass.”[iv] Likewise, Heather O’Reilly, another U.S. player, argued that the use of artificial grass “is a blatant demonstration of FIFA not placing the women side by side with the men.”

“The capacity to adjust soccer skills to artificial grass “could be considered another component of the skill repertoire that elite players, as well as managers and coaches, should develop to succeed”

The women players’ last argument, that the use of artificial grass poses greater health risks than natural grass, might not be as definitive as they claim it is. Jan Ekstrand, vice-chairperson of the Union of European Football Associations’ Medical Committee, asserted that according to numerous studies “the total risk of injury is the same on football turf as it is on natural grass,” at least when the game is played on FIFA-certified artificial grass.[xviii] Both Ekstrand and FIFA think that there is a misconception and distrust of artificial grass based on players’ experience with its original versions from several decades ago. Artificial grass, they affirm, has improved considerably and is at present as safe as natural grass.[xix]Several studies suggest that the latest version of “artificial turf does not increase injury risk in football.”[xx] All this, FIFA could point out, challenges the claim that player’s health and safety are more on the line on artificial grass than on natural grass.

Given the potential objections to the women players’ arguments to reverse the CSA’s decision to use artificial grass in the tournament, it is not surprising that FIFA responded to their challenges by denying their claims. However, the CSA’s unilateral decision to have the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup played on artificial grass, sanctioned by FIFA, is not necessarily decisive in regards to the moral claims raised by the women players. On what basis then can the respective arguments be evaluated to determine which side has a more compelling and persuasive case?

In terms of the concerns related to health, it seems that more research is required. While current research seems to support FIFA’s claim that playing on artificial grass has no significant effect on the rate of traumatic injuries, anecdotal evidence raises questions about long-term health risks associated with playing on such surface.[xxi] Such questions are related to the accumulated years of play on artificial grass that far exceed the exposure players will log during the tournament. Yet FIFA’s approval to host the women’s premier tournament on artificial grass makes this a non-trivial concern. If more leagues, officials, and venues follow the CSA’s lead and make the shift to artificial grass and further research indicates that there are elevated long-term health risks, then the cost-benefit assessment of using artificial grass must consider that such risks are born by the players. It will take time to determine the extent to which health concerns are warranted or not. In the meantime, the matches must go on and FIFA is well within its purview to approve artificial grass. Still, it is important to highlight that FIFA’s decisions, as in this case, often times make one wonder about its consideration for player safety. The lack of scientific research regarding the long-term impact of playing on artificial grass gives one pause and recommends at least the exercise of caution.

This allows for a retort to the argument that the CSA’s decision to use artificial grass in the tournament is not discriminatory. Apparently, player safety did not figure heavily in FIFA’s 2010 decision to award the 2022 FIFA Men’s World Cup to Qatar. Thus, it decided that the tournament would be played in June and July, when the Qatari summer temperatures can be excruciatingly elevated. Player safety, along with numerous other issues surrounding the process that lead to Qatar being awarded the tournament, was rapidly raised by the media, players, and soccer officials as a disquieting issue.[xxii] Under pressure, FIFA recently changed the dates to November and December because of, as it admitted, “the likely and possible impacts of conditions on players.”[xxiii] This does not demonstrate that FIFA is guilty of gender discrimination, but at least it insinuates that FIFA treats similar apprehensions about player safety with dissimilar concern and respect if such apprehensions are articulated by or relate to women or men players, which in turn raises significant moral concerns over their treatment.

Even if FIFA’s change of dates for the 2022 FIFA Men’s World Cup was basically a prudential response to external pressure rather than a reflection of sincere concern for player safety, the women players’ claim of gender discrimination might still have force. It could be maintained that the CSA’s decision to use artificial grass in the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup did not treat women players’ interests with the same concern and respect as men players’ interests. This is more so the case if the women players’ claim is not interpreted broadly as demanding or expecting identical treatment in all matters but rather as limited to the playing surface, which players, men and women, deem central to presenting the best version of the game. Consider everything that rides on the opportunities offered by the World Cup. The argument is that soccer’s premier event deserves and requires the premier playing surface, for both women and men. Otherwise, Singer’s equality of consideration seems to be comprised. While economic or practical reasons might sometimes require FIFA or other soccer authorities to make concessions regarding playing surfaces, no unassailable reason was presented to justify using artificial grass in the upcoming Women’s World Cup. Given FIFA’s available economic resources, the cost of providing natural grass would not present an undue burden. As Hampton Dellinger, an advocate for the women players, explained, “We are talking about a couple of million dollars, a tiny fraction of Fifa’s annual budget, to fix the fields in question to bring them to a level worthy of the tournament.”[xxiv]

“The argument is that soccer’s premier event deserves and requires the premier playing surface, for both women and men. Otherwise, Singer’s equality of consideration seems to be comprised”

The claim that artificial grass does not distort soccer is not decisive either. Has FIFA provided solid criteria to effectively evaluate this claim? A playing surface does not have to be disastrous to be proven inadequate. While there is some evidence that the style of play changes on artificial grass, whether such, or other, change is acceptable must still be addressed. A key issue is to determine when a change constitutes a distortion of the game. Organizational, commercial, and economic interests should be considered, but so too should the players’ expectations for and experiences on the different surfaces. After all, they can perceptively speak to and illuminate the ways in which the changes impact the game. It is important to get input from all relevant stakeholders in our moral deliberations. Perhaps after an opportunity to sit down at the table with other stakeholders, the players would willingly make concessions or compromise when informed of how other relevant factors influence this case. Alternatively, after listening to the players, other stakeholders might be willing to make concessions or compromise. Then again, FIFA refused to have a conversation with the women players.  That is, their concerns were never given a fair hearing, which indicates that the women players did not fully receive treatment as an equal.

This is decidedly a moral matter. Even if there is nothing problematic about the outcome of playing the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup on artificial grass, how the decision-making process was conducted is morally relevant in itself and demands scrutiny. Moral deliberation pertaining to a social practice requires representation from all its constituents. This intersubjective moral approach takes seriously how our moral concerns are embedded in a social context and explains why moral deliberation requires a sphere of interlocution that make possible the participation of all constituents.[xxv] A fair deliberative process allows for values to be enumerated, disagreements to be voiced, and the choices that are made to reflect the interests of all of those who are part of the social practice. Therefore, the dearth of women in leadership roles within FIFA means that women players have unduly limited opportunities to advocate for their interests. An authoritative body, one that has a representative and democratic structure and functioning, has a responsibility not to simply decide matters for its members but rather a responsibility to ensure that all its members participate in its moral deliberation. For this reason, the decision to have women play on artificial grass seems to be illegitimate not only because of the issues with this playing surface itself but also fundamentally because of the issues related to how the CSA and FIFA arrived at that decision.

“FIFA refused to have a conversation with the women players.  That is, their concerns were never given a fair hearing, which indicates that the women players did not fully receive treatment as an equal”

So even if the decision to play the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup on artificial grass is not discriminatory, nor distortive of the game, nor riskier to players’ health than natural grass, arguments which as seen above are far from conclusive, the process and procedures that led to this decision are in themselves morally suspicious. Some could maintain that this does not amount to moral disaster, but that is hardly the standard one would want to live by.  For a whole host of historical and social factors, women have fewer opportunities to develop their athletic skills, are given inferior facilities and budgets, their successes are often minimized, and they receive less coaching and administrative support. When it comes to soccer, while women have made remarkable progress, they still face similarly remarkable challenges both on and off the field [xxvi]. The legacy of the turf war may not be only related to the moral issues concerning the playing surface at this Women’s World Cup, but rather to drawing attention to the systemic marginalization and trivialization of women players’ interests and concerns in particular and, in conjunction with the issues surrounding the 2022 FIFA Men’s World Cup in Qatar, players’ interests and concerns in general.

Footnotes & References:

[i] Canadian Soccer Association, “Canada to Welcome the World and its Game in 2015,” Canadian Soccer Association, March 3, 2011, accessed February 5, 2015, http://www.canadasoccer.com/canada-to-welcome-the-world-and-its-game-in-2015-p145594.

[ii] See, for example, Bill Chappell, “Soccer Players End Lawsuit Over Artificial Turf At Women’s World Cup,” National Public Radio, January 21, 2015, accessed January 29, 2015, http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwoway/2015/01/ 21/378896641/soccer-players-end-lawsuit-over-artificial-turf-at-women-s-world-cup; “Abby Wambach, Players Drop World Cup Turf Suit,” ESPNW, January 21, 2015, accessed January 29, 2015, http://espn.go.com/espnw/news-commentary/article/12205330/abby-wambach-players-withdraw-women-world-cup-lawsuit-use-artificial-turf; Kevin Baxter, “Women’s World Cup to Go Forward on Artificial Turf,” Los Angeles Times, January 21, 2015, accessed January 29, 2015, http://www.latimes.com/sports/sportsnow/la-sp-sn-womens-world-cup-lawsuit-artificialt urf-20150121-story.html; Marissa Payne, “Abby Wambach Says Women’s World Cup Players Are Still Fighting the ‘Turf War,’ but They Won’t Boycott Event,” Washington Post, January 14, 2015, accessed January 29, 2015, http:// www.washingt onpost.com/blogs/early-lead/wp/2015/01/14/abby-wambach-says-womens-world-cup-players-are-still-fighting-the-turf-war-but-they-wont-boycott-event/; Andrew Das, “Stars Sue Organizers of Women’s World Cup Over Use of Turf,” The New York Times, October 1, 2014, accessed January 29, 2015, http://www.nytimes.co m/2014/10/02/sports/soccer/womens-soccer-stars-sue-world-cup-organizers-over-artificial-turf.html?_r=0; and “With Turf, Women See Unequal Footing,” The New York Times, August 12, 2014, accessed January 29, 2015, http: //www.nytimes.com/2014/08/13/sports/soccer/players-threaten-suing-fifa-ahead-of-womens-world-cup.html.

[iii] “Abby Wambach, Players Drop World Cup Turf Suit.”

[iv] Payne, “Abby Wambach Says Women’s World Cup Players Are Still Fighting the ‘Turf War,’ but They Won’t Boycott Event.”

[v] Chappell, “Soccer Players End Lawsuit Over Artificial Turf At Women’s World Cup.”

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Bonnie D. Ford, “Turf War Still Front and Center,” ESPNW, June 6, 2013, accessed February 5, 2015, http://espn.g o.com/espnw/news-comme ntary/article/9348433/espnw-two-years-women-world-cup-turf-war-front-center.

[viii] See “Abby Wambach, Players Drop World Cup Turf Suit;” “With Turf, Women See Unequal Footing;” and Ford, “Turf War Still Front and Center.”

[ix] Ford, “Turf War Still Front and Center.”

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Peter Singer, “All Animals Are Equal,” in Contemporary Moral Problems, 9th ed., ed. James E. White (Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2009), 329. In some instances though, as Ronald Dworkin has argued, “the right to treatment as an equal will entail a right to equal treatment, but not, by any means, in all circumstances” (Ronald Dworkin, “DeFunis vs. Sweatt,” in Equality and Preferential Treatment, ed. Marshall Cohen, Thomas Nagel and Thomas Scanlon [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977], 68).

[xii] See, for example, Ronald Dworkin, Taking Rights Seriously (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977), 227-229; and William Frankena, Ethics, 2nd ed. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1973), 48-52.

[xiii] See Fédération Internationale de Football Association, “FIFA Women’s World Cup 2015. Football Turf – Q & A,” FIFA.com, n.d., accessed February 9, 2015, http://resources.fifa.com/mm/document/fifaqualityprogramme/footb allturf/02/48/82/00/fwwc-football-turf-qa_en_neutral.pdf.

[xiv] See Fédération Internationale de Football Association, “FIFA Women’s World Cup 2015. Football Turf – Q & A.”

[xv] Grant Wahl, “Q&A: Marta Talks Awards, Artificial Turf, and Brazil’s World Cup Hopes,” Sports Illustrated, January 9, 2015, accessed February 9, 2015, http://www.si.com/planet-futbol/2015/01/09/marta-interview-uswnt-bra zilian-national-team-womens-world-cup.

[xvi] Cesar R. Torres, “What Is Wrong With Playing High?,” Journal of the Philosophy of Sport 36, 1 (2009): 11.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] Fédération Internationale de Football Association, “Ekstrand: The Total Risk of Injury Is the Same on Football Turf as It Is on Natural Grass,” FIFA.com, November 7, 2014, accessed February 10, 2015, http://www.fifa.com/wo mensworldcup/news/y=201 4/m=11/news=ekstrand-the-total-risk-of-injury-is-the-same-on-football-turf-as-it-i-2472281.html.

[xix] Fédération Internationale de Football Association, “FIFA Women’s World Cup 2015. Football Turf – Q & A” and “Ekstrand: The Total Risk of Injury Is the Same on Football Turf as It Is on Natural Grass.”

[xx] Mubarak Almutawaa, Mark Scott, Keith P. George and Barry Drust, “The Incidence and Nature of Injuries Sustained on Grass and 3rd Generation Artificial Turf: A Pilot Study in Elite Saudi National Team Footballers,” Physical Therapy in Sport 15 (2014): 51. See also Sean Williams, Patria A. Hume and Stephen Kara, “A Review of Football Injuries on Third and Fourth Generation Artificial Turfs Compared with Natural Turf,” Sports Medicine 41, 11 (2011): 903-923; and Jason L. Dragoo and Hillary Braun, “The Effect of Playing Surface on Injury Rate. A Review of the Current Literature,” Sports Medicine 40, 11 (2010): 981-990.

[xxi] Hannah Rappleye, “How Safe Is the Artificial Turf Your Child Plays On?,” NBC News.com, October 8, 2014, accessed March 30, 2015, http://www.nbcnews.com/news/investigations/how-safe-artificial-turf-your-child-plays-n220166.

[xxii] A summary of the issues is found in Richard Whittall, “FIFA May Regret a Qatar World Cup After All,” The New Yorker, March 23, 2015, accessed April 2, 2015, http://www.newyorker.com/news/sporting-scene/fifa-may-regret-a-qatar-world-cup-after-all.

[xxiii] Fédération Internationale de Football Association, “Late-November/Late-December Proposed for the 2022 FIFA World Cup,” FIFA.com, February 24, 2015, accessed April 2, 2015, http://www.fifa.com/worldcup/qatar2022/news/ y=2015/m=2/news=late-november-late-december-proposed-for-the-2022-fifa-world-cup-2529262.html.

[xxiv] Alistair Magowan, “2015 World Cup: Fifa Defends Synthetic Turf Decision,” BBC.com, September 11, 2014, accessed January 29, 2015, http://www.bbc.com/sport/0/football/29149321.

[xxv] See, for example, Douglas W. McLaughlin and Cesar R. Torres, “A Veil of Separation: Intersubjectivity, Olympism, and FIFA’s Hijab Saga,” International Journal of Applied Philosophy 28, 2 (2014): 353-372; Douglas W. McLaughlin and Cesar R. Torres, “More than Games: Olympism as a Moral Approach to Sport,” in The Olympics and Philosophy, ed. Heather L. Reid and Michael W. Austin (Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2012), 101-116; and Douglas W. McLaughlin and Cesar R. Torres, “A Moral Justification for a More Inclusive Olympic Program,” Olympika. The International Journal of Olympic Studies 20 (2011): 55-78.

[xxvi] For an introductory account of the history of women’s sport, see Allen Guttmann, Women’s Sports: A History(New York: Columbia University Press, 1991). For different aspects of the history of women’s soccer see, for example, chapter 7 (“Left out: Women’s Soccer”) of Joshua H. Nadel, Fútbol!: Why Soccer Matters in Latin America(Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2014); Timothy F. Grainey, Beyond “Bend It Like Beckham”: The Global Phenomenon of Women’s Soccer (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press: 2012); Fan Hong and J. A. Mangan, ed.,Soccer, Women, Sexual Liberation: Kicking off a New Era (London: Frank Cass, 2004); and Jere Longman, The Girls of Summer: The U.S. Women’s Soccer Team and How It Changed the World (New York, NY : Perennial, 2001).

Cesar R. Torres
Cesar R. Torres
Cesar R. Torres is professor in the Department of Kinesiology, Sport Studies and Physical Education at The College at Brockport, State University of New York. He is a fellow in the National Academy of Kinesiology and a former president of the International Association for the Philosophy of Sport. He is the editor of The Bloomsbury Companion to the Philosophy of Sport (Bloomsbury, 2014) and coauthor (with Robert L. Simon and Peter F. Hager) of the fourth edition of Fair Play: The Ethics of Sport (Westview Press, 2015).
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