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Photo Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mastermaq/

By: Marie Bussey

October 22, 2014

For years, women in industry have fought the proverbial glass ceiling, but the world’s best female soccer players are now facing a grass ceiling as they engage in a literal turf war with the Canadian Soccer Association (CSA) and the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA). These elite players have but one demand from these associations: provide the Women’s World Cup with the same grass playing fields that they provide for the Men’s World Cup.

The Complaint
Claiming to represent “the overwhelming majority of tournament participants,” eighteen named applicants filed a gender discrimination complaint with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario on October 1, 2014.[1]  Among the most recognizable applicants are Nadine Angerer of Germany and Abby Wambach of the United States.[2]

The complaint alleges that subjecting elite female players to artificial turf is an act of gender discrimination consistent with a culture of gender bias at FIFA and the CSA.[3]  The applicants contend that both FIFA and the CSA have acknowledged publicly that artificial turf is substandard and unacceptable for use by elite players.[4]  Most notably, Kara Lang, the CSA’s first official Ambassador to the World Cup, has noted, “No soccer player prefers [artificial turf]. It pales in comparison to a well-manicured grass pitch.”[5] Even the CSA’s own general secretary, Peter Montopoli, has said, “On the men’s side,  . . . [i]t has to be grass.”[6]  The complaint also points to published reports indicating that artificial turf at BC Place, the very stadium where the Women’s World Cup Final is to be played, was a “dealbreaker” that kept the Canadian men’s team from playing World Cup qualifying matches there.[7]

Abby Wambach Tweet

Photo Credit: http://blog.foxsoccer.com/post/45950117772/2015-world-cup-final-to-be-played-on-artificial-turf

Why Grass?

Although gender discrimination is the issue at hand, turf is at the heart of the matter because, according to the players, it negatively impacts the game.[8]  First, “[t]he ball bounces and rolls differently,” which forces individuals as well as teams to play differently.[9]  Second, artificial turf limits aggressive play and “[f]an-favorite slide tackles and diving headers.”[10]  Finally, the application contends, “[t]he most reliable scientific research” reports a higher risk of serious injury on artificial turf, and turf exposes players to injuries not present on grass, including “skin lesions, abrasions and lacerations.”[11]

Proposed Remedy

The players ask that the Human Rights Tribunal order FIFA and the CSA “to ensure that the tournament is played on natural grass.”[12]  Although they do not care how this task is accomplished, the players outline what they believe are feasible solutions for each of the six venues.  Proposed solutions include moving games to existing stadiums that already have grass fields, installing new permanent grass fields, or overlaying the turf with temporary grass fields (as has been done in at least two prior men’s World Cups).[13]

A Culture of Gender Discrimination?
The applicants claim that the current acts of gender discrimination are consistent with a historical pattern of gender bias from both the CSA and FIFA.  Of note, only three of thirteen CSA board members are women, and only one woman sits on the sixteen-member FIFA Executive Committee.[14]  Moreover, the applicants cited public statements from CSA President, Victor Montagliani, and FIFA President, Sepp Blatter, as evidence that the culture of gender discrimination stems from the top.  Specifically, Montagliani has referred to the men’s World Cup as “the big World Cup,” and Blatter reportedly has called for women to play in “tighter shorts” because “female players are pretty.”[15]  Blatter also has admitted that “it is still not easy for women to hold positions of power within FIFA” and that “[f]ootball is very macho.”[16] Sports Illustrated even published a recent article documenting “examples of sexism and discrimination within FIFA’s leadership.”[17]

Much Ado about Nothing? The CSA Responds
In a response submitted to the Tribunal on October 9, 2014, the CSA contends that the application is a baseless “effort by certain players to highlight a disagreement they have with FIFA.”[18]  The respondents list several arguments that directly contradict the claims made in the players’ application:  (1) The applicants have known of plans to play on turf for three years and have only now filed an “11th hour” complaint; (2) The applicants “failed to bring any complaint to FIFA’s comprehensive dispute resolution mechanisms”; (3) FIFA approved artificial turf for all major tournaments when it amended its Laws of the Game in 2004; (4) “[H]igh quality turf is integral to soccer in Canada”; (5) Turf does not change the game or increase the risk of injury; and (6) Major men’s tournaments have been played on turf in Canada in the past.[19]

What’s Next?
The Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario has the ball now and will make a call on whether to expedite a hearing on the issue.  If the hearing is not expedited, it is unlikely that a resolution will come in time for any changes to be made prior to the 2015 Women’s World Cup.  One thing is certain though, the outcome of this case will have far-reaching effects because of Canada’s desire to host the 2026 Men’s World Cup: if the 2015 Women’s World Cup ultimately is played on turf, it will be interesting to see how the turf issue is handled when the Men’s Cup is at stake.[20]  Stay tuned . . .

 


 

[1] Schedule A to the Application at 3-4, Players on the National Teams Participating in the FIFA Women’s World Cup Canada 2015 v. CSA. No. 2014-18923 (Ont. Oct. 1, 2014).
[2] Id. at 3.
[3] Id. at 8-10.
[4] Id. at 5-6.
[5] Id. at 6.
[6] Schedule A to the Application at 8, Players on the National Teams Participating in the FIFA Women’s World Cup Canada 2015 v. CSA. No. 2014-18923 (Ont. Oct. 1, 2014).
[7] Id.
[8] Id. at 6.
[9] Id.
[10] Id.
[11] Schedule A to the Application at 6-7, Players on the National Teams Participating in the FIFA Women’s World Cup Canada 2015 v. CSA. No. 2014-18923 (Ont. Oct. 1, 2014).
[12] Id. at 13-15.
[13] Id.
[14] Id. at 8-9.
[15] Id. at 9.
[16] Schedule A to the Application at 9, Players on the National Teams Participating in the FIFA Women’s World Cup Canada 2015 v. CSA. No. 2014-18923 (Ont. Oct. 1, 2014).
[17] Id.  See the article at http://www.si.com/soccer/planet-futbol/2014/09/12/fifa-sexism-womens-soccer-sepp-blatter-abby-wambach-alexandra-wrage-julie-foudy.
[18] Schedule A – Response of the Canadian Soccer Association to the Request for an Expedited Hearing at 11, Players on the National Teams Participating in the FIFA Women’s World Cup Canada 2015 v. CSA. No. 2014-18923 (Ont. Oct. 9, 2014).
[19] Id. at 1-7.
[20] To review the players’ application and the CSA’s response, visit http://womens.soccerly.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/141001_2_Application-Sec-24-Schedule-A.pdf; http://www.canadasoccer.com/files/2014_10_09_Response_to_Request_to_Expedite_Proceedings.pdf , respectively.

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