For months, a growing number of soccer players headed for the women's World Cup have been arguing that playing next summer's tournament on artificial turf would be insulting to them and to their game. Bill Littlefield has been following the dispute between the players and FIFA, the sport's governing body.
The controversy over the surface upon which the next women's World Cup will be played demonstrates that FIFA is still comfortable treating women as second-class citizens.
The best male soccer players on the planet would never be asked to play their World Cup on anything other than grass.
The best female soccer players on the planet have been told to shut up and play on artificial turf. Some of the national federations have told their players that if they didn't shut up, they'd be dropped from their teams.
For significant men's games, artificial surfaces have been temporarily covered with grass. The process works. It's expensive, but the only thing FIFA has more of than arrogance is money, which they apparently don't want to spend on the women's game.
[sidebar title="World Cup Controversy" width="630" align="right"] Bill Littlefield previously spoke to Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl regarding artificial turf at the women's World Cup. [/sidebar]This controversy matters, not only because the artificial surface negatively alters the game and increases the likelihood of injury, but because of FIFA's position that women should put up with something men would never be asked to accept, and they should be grateful for the opportunity to do it. And they should shut up.
If the women who will play in the World Cup and their attorneys manage to get acceptable playing surfaces, the victory will not directly address the monstrous gap between what female pro athletes are paid and what their male counterparts make. Many people will still care more about men's sports than they do about women's sports, and they'll spend their entertainment dollars accordingly. But grass for the 2015 World Cup would be a step toward equal treatment, and it would demonstrate that an organized and determined collection of female soccer players can embarrass the nest of rascals that is FIFA into acknowledging an attempt to bully women and the women's game.
On Monday, Hampton Dellinger, the lead attorney representing the soccer players, announced that the entire Australian team had signed the petition demanding equal treatment for the women's World Cup, at least as far as the playing surface is concerned. He also called FIFA's bluff. Having pointed out that FIFA's spokespeople had claimed they'd welcome "open dialogue," Mr. Dellinger offered several times during which various top players would be standing by, waiting for that call.
"Can FIFA refuse to get on the phone with the world's best soccer players?" he asked.
Fans of the game — and of equal opportunity — hope that the answer will be no.
More Commentaries From Bill Littlefield: