The Grass Ceiling: How to Conquer Inequality in Women's Soccer

An attorney who helped players file a gender-discrimination lawsuit over artificial turf in the World Cup proposes a way forward for the sport.

USA Today / Reuters

On Sunday, players from the U.S. and Japan’s women’s soccer teams will step onto the field in Vancouver to compete for the sport’s greatest achievement: the World Cup. But perhaps the bigger battle—one that started well before the final match and will continue well after—isn’t about a trophy or national glory. Women’s soccer teams have long fought for recognition and respect not just from the public, but also from the male organizers of the sport, and it’s a struggle symbolized by the very fields they’ve been playing on.

The co-hosts of the World Cup—FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association—failed to stage this year’s tournament to be played on real grass like every other World Cup previously, mandating that it be played on artificial turf instead. This is despite the dangers and inconveniences plastic turf poses. The synthetic pitches bake in the sun, with surface temperatures sometimes reaching 120 degrees. Clouds of rubber pebbles fly into players’ eyes, and the turf makes it difficult for the women to gauge the way the ball will bounce.

Working with attorneys in Canada and the U.S., I represented a group of 80 international players who in the fall of 2014 sued FIFA and CSA for gender discrimination in an effort to get the World Cup games on natural grass. Our fight was known as the “turf war,” and it wasn’t an easy one. In the months that followed, FIFA and CSA variously threatened protesting players with suspension, delayed a court decision despite the players’ need to know what surface the tournament would be held on so they could train accordingly, and suggested they would either defy an adverse legal ruling or cancel the tournament altogether. They also repeatedly rejected the players’ settlement offers—for example, to play just the semi-final and championship games on temporary grass surfaces with all installation costs covered by private companies. As the World Cup’s June 2015 kick-off drew nearer, it became clear to the players and to me that leaders within FIFA and CSA had a peculiar conception what constitutes a fair legal fight. And so we withdrew our lawsuit to allow the players and their coaches to focus exclusively on preparing for the unique conditions and challenges posed by artificial turf.

At the time the case ended, a handful of voices argued that the players should boycott the tournament. However well meaning they might have been, such calls came from those with little understanding of what it’s like to be a world-class athlete who’s spent years fighting for an opportunity to participate in her sport’s preeminent event. The World Cup is played once every four years and, for many of the players, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. What’s worse than competing for a World Cup title on artificial turf?  Not competing at all.

There’s simply no justification for forcing women to play on a subpar surface when no World Cup in history—either a men’s or women’s contest—has ever used the material. Prior play can’t account for the disparate treatment. Sports fans are increasingly seeing women’s World Cup players for what they are: elite, exciting athletes and national representatives first and foremost. Put another way, they’re viewed much as male footballers are. And so, with a plethora of stars, compelling storylines—can the U.S. win its first World Cup since 1999? How far can Marta carry Brazil? Can anyone score on German netminder Nadine Angerer?—plus ever-growing interest, FIFA and Canada had a unique and valuable asset in the tournament.

With the World Cup’s end, Sepp Blatter’s reign as FIFA president apparently near conclusion, and FIFA itself hopefully ready to re-think its future in light of the kleptocratic past outlined in the U.S. Department of Justice’s recent criminal indictments, now is a natural time to consider what’s next for international women’s soccer. There are concrete steps that can be taken now to make things right with the World Cup players and make things better for women’s soccer generally.

One option would be to give women players a pay bonus for playing on the fake turf. Last year, after playing seven games on natural grass fields, the men’s World Cup-winning German team earned $35 million. The champion team this year will also play seven games (none on grass) and earn just $2 million. The overall prize-money pay gap is similarly stark: $358 million made available for all the men’s teams in 2014, but a mere $15 million for the women in 2015. And, according to Business Insider, because the women’s field expanded from 16 teams in 2011 to 24 this year, the average share for non-winning women’s teams has actually dropped when compared with the last tournament.

Meanwhile, FIFA reportedly spent nearly $30 million bankrolling an unwatchable biopic of itself and its leaders. The least it can do is add a similar amount to the prize money pot for this World Cup. While some professional sports events (see Wimbledon thanks to Venus Williams) have moved toward actual equal pay, giving women’s World Cup players even an extra dime or two to a man’s dollar would be meaningful progress. FIFA can call the payment whatever it wants but, whatever the “turf bonus” amount, the money should go directly to the players, with no middlemen.

Another positive step forward would be to force FIFA to prove that money wasn’t a motivating factor for forcing female players to play on subpar fields. While FIFA has never disclosed how many millions of dollars per year it receives from its artificial turf “preferred producer” program, the sums may be substantial. Yet FIFA leaders suggest that altruism, not the almighty dollar, has been driving its embrace of the synthetic pitch. The organization’s own website states: “According to Blatter, the revenue generated from the licensing of the pitches will be reinvested in FIFA’s own development programs. ‘We’re not doing this to make money, but for the good of the game.’” At the very least, FIFA should be forced to prove that fact, in addition to disclosing how much it pays its purportedly “independent” turf evaluators. And it could also fund scientifically rigorous studies into whether the recycled tire pieces and other potentially toxic turf components pose cancer and other health risks.

One more way to improve the chances of gender equality in the sport would be to increase the number of women who serve as coaches and administrators to women players. While certain men have done a fine job developing women’s soccer on the field and off, until job opportunities truly go both ways, women should be getting the lion’s share of high-level women’s coaching and administrative positions. Because the men who overwhelmingly lead national soccer federations control the key hiring decisions, FIFA should adopt an NFL-like “Rooney Rule” and mandate that at least two women be considered for every major women’s national team coaching, staff, and administrative position.

To set a good example for future potential hosts, FIFA should eliminate Canada as a candidate for hosting the men’s World Cup anytime soon because of the country’s failure to properly host the Women’s Cup. CSA officials have noted that pulling off the Women’s Cup would put them in a better position to obtain the men’s counterpart or as CSA President Victor Montagliani put it: “the big World Cup.” A few days ago, Montagliani claimed his organization passed the test the Women’s World Cup posed with flying colors and said, in terms of hosting a men’s tournament: “Quite frankly, we deserve it.” But he’s wrong.

At Vancouver’s BC Place Stadium, home to several key games, turf installation was completed just one week before the tournament’s start even though it reportedly takes two months or more for all the manufactured components to properly mix. And rather than staging games in the densely populated soccer hotbed of Toronto, Canadian officials opted for the remote town of Moncton where few fans showed up at the stadium and the ones who did had trouble getting in. Moreover, the attendance records that Montagliani and his CSA sidekick Peter Montopoli have been crowing about are due in large part to American fans crossing the border to cheer on the U.S.A. The bottom line is that Canada had a golden opportunity to show the world how a first-class World Cup is run, and it blew it.

While I think these recommendations have merit, I also know that there’s a huge pool of incredibly accomplished and insightful women who know where the sport should go from here and how to get there. There must be philanthropic groups and individuals willing to sponsor a Women’s Soccer Summit to chart the game’s future. Male soccer luminaries and those with ties to FIFA can attend and participate but women—not men and not FIFA—should be in charge.

I recognize that improving conditions for the most accomplished players in a single sport only addresses a small part of the challenges females face in gaining meaningful gender equality throughout athletics. And, of course, sports barriers make up just a fraction of the global challenges girls and women continue to confront. But there’s an immediacy and universality to sports that suffuses athletic progress, however limited, with import and meaning. The “turf war” captured global attention because of the symbolism as well as the reality of a literally unequal playing field. Despite Christine Lagarde, Angela Merkel, Janet Yellen and so many other women serving as lead players on the world stage, retrogrades such as Blatter, Jerome Valcke, Montagliani, and Montopoli were still able to create a potent reminder of how women can be treated differently and unequally.

Still, every well-kicked ball in this year’s World Cup has put another divot in FIFA’s “grass ceiling.”  And their arcs bended not just toward the goal but toward parity as well. Sweat-soaked, blood-stained, and turf-burned, the women of the 2015 World Cup redeemed the tournament and made it memorable not for the artificial-turf fields, but for what happened on them.