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Commentary Oct 21, 2014

Women’s World Cup TurfGate: FIFA, listen up!

WendyLeBolt-HeaderWhat if Canada threw a World Cup and no one showed up? That might be what’s needed to get FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association to give serious consideration to the lawsuit brought against them by 40 professional women’s soccer players alleging gender discrimination in the decision to play the 2015 Women’s World Cup on artificial turf.

“I don’t think it surprises me so much as it’s appalling,” Abby Wambach told USA Today Sports on Sunday. “It’s appalling they won’t even give us the time of day. We deserve to be heard and acknowledged, period.”

The players have said they won’t boycott the tournament; they are fully committed to their fans and refuse to let them down. And anyway, that’s not how women do things. We talk about them and we expect to be listened to, especially when we are the best in the world.

+ READ: TurfGate: Women’s World Cup players take 2015 pitch fight to human rights tribunal

Wambach and the 39 other international players who filed suit certainly know what they’re talking about. But, having never played pro ball myself, I am wondering, what’s the big deal? Turf is the preferred surface for our youth training, games and tournaments these days. It used to be just the privileged programs had them. Now they’re everywhere. And they’re a selling point for showcase tournaments to attract distant teams who want a guaranteed number of games.

Certainly, though, there is no argument that the game is different when played on turf.

  • The ball rolls faster, which means the pace of play is increased. This should give the advantage to the fitter team. Shouldn’t this be a plus?
  • The ball moves more easily, more true and is easier to bend and stop. Shouldn’t this favor the more technical team? Also a plus?
  • The surface offers cushioning – at least the third- and fourth-generation turf surfaces of today (this isn’t your parent’s AstroTurf). This changes the “feel” of play, and soccer is all about feel, so now we may be getting warm.

Most of today’s professional players have not grown up on a healthy diet of turf, so this change is likely not welcome. But the opposition borders on virulent. Several marquee male players have refused to play games scheduled on the surface. David Beckham was quite adamant: 

“As professional athletes, you can’t play a game like soccer on that sort of field. The reaction of players and what it does to your body, as a soccer player, you [need] two or three days off for that. Every game, every team should have grass, without a doubt. You can’t ask any athlete to perform at a high level on the FieldTurf.” 

david-beckham-la-galaxyWhat does it do to your body? That’s a fair question. Many players will tell you that the rate of injury is higher on turf. If they have seen knees and ankles give out on a turf surface, they will likely indict the surface, but so far, that conclusion is not supported by the research. You can find studies that go either way, but a large meta-analysis, that is, a combination of a number of qualifying studies to gather a large and diverse data base, has actually found that the risk of injury was 10-14 percent lower on turf than on grass.

This result held for males and females as well as youth and adults. Knee, ankle and foot injuries were fewer on turf and muscle strains were similar on the two surfaces.

+ READ: Former CDC toxicologist unsurprised by alleged link between artificial turf, cancer

The caveat is this: The only injuries measured here were those taking players out of training or match play for a day or more. The kind of body-beating professional players are talking about are abrasions, contusions and excessive fatigue. None of these will keep a pro off the field, but do they change the game?

  • Do you back off and give a player more space?
  • Do you slide less or defend a bit less aggressively to prevent painful injury?
  • Are you more fatigued in a game that steps up its pace, perhaps by 25 percent?
  • Are you more exhausted during and after play on a pitch that may reach surface temperatures of 117 degrees Fahrenheit?
  • Do you require more recovery after playing on a spongy surface that mires your feet?
  • If you perceive the game as faster, more demanding and more fatiguing does it feel that way?

And then you see the photo tweeted by Sydney Leroux of bruised knees and bleeding shins and wonder whether this is more than a perception. I mean, after a Redskins game at FedEx field, the grass is demolished, with divots and gashes and areas stomped to mud. Something’s got to give. On synthetic surfaces, it’s not gonna be the turf.


So maybe these pros have a case.

What would Rory McElroy say if you told him they were replacing the bent grass greens with turf at the Masters this year? I’ll bet he’d refuse to play and you can be sure the PGA would pay attention.

What would Rafael Nadal say if you told him they were planning to replace all clay and grass courts with hard court? I’ll bet he would speak up and the USTA would think again.

What would Kathrine Switzer do if you told her that she was too fragile to run the marathon? She’d run it anyway and accept the consequences, paving the way for Joan Benoit (Samuelson) to win the first women’s Olympic marathon in 2:24:52, 11 days after knee surgery.

FIFA would do well to listen. But if they don’t, I fully expect these women will find a way to be heard.

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