Today, U.S. Senators Charles E. Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand called on the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) to reconsider its short-sighted and counterproductive decision to allow games in the 2015 Women’s World Cup tournament, which is being held in Canada, to be played on artificial turf. FIFA bans artificial turf fields in the men’s World Cup.
A group of more than 40 top international women’s soccer players have filed a lawsuit against FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association for gender discrimination, citing that the men’s FIFA World Cup competition has never been played on artificial turf. At the professional level, artificial turf changes the way the game is played, which is why FIFA bans its use for the men’s World Cup. Many athletes and studies also contend that artificial turf increases the risk of injury and overheating. The players are demanding the games be played on the same natural grass fields afforded to male World Cup participants. Schumer and Gillibrand are joining their cause today by calling on FIFA to enter into good faith negotiations with the female athletes that have expressed concerns over playing on artificial turf so that safety, prestige and gender equality can all be restored to the game. The Senators are calling on FIFA to work with the athletes and game organizers to bring the equal treatment to the game these top soccer players deserve.
“The bottom line is that FIFA can’t have one set of rules and standards for the men’s World Cup, which for good reason, bans the use of artificial turf, and the women’s World Cup, which allows it. At the elite world-class level, soccer is best played on grass for many reasons, and FIFA should agree to sit down with the leaders of the women’s soccer community, like American soccer icon Abby Wambach, and hash out a deal that restores professionalism and equality to the tournament,” said Senator Schumer. “Our women’s national soccer team has had immense success, including winning the World Cup, which I hope that one day our men’s team will also secure, and when they raise concerns about uneven treatment and bias by FIFA, we should support them.
“The fact that FIFA is not treating these women players equally, and forcing them to play on artificial turf, is an egregious error on their part,” added Schumer. “Artificial turf has proven to alter the style of play, can be less safe and diminishes the prestige of the tournament. The elite female soccer players deserve the same treatment as men. That is why I am blowing the whistle on FIFA and calling on them to level the playing field and undo this terrible decision.”
“It should be an easy call to provide female soccer players on the world stage at next year’s World Cup with the same level of safety as their male counterparts,” said Senator Gillibrand. “It just doesn’t make sense for these exceptional athletes to play on a lesser quality artificial turf that is hard to play on and increases the risk of injuries. This is a simple matter of fairness, FIFA needs to do the right thing and level the playing field.”
Schumer and Gillibrand noted that Rochester native and member of the U.S. Women’s National Team, Abby Wambach, has been particularly outspoken on this issue and has received backlash, like many female athletes who have spoken out, from FIFA. Abby currently plays forward for the Western New York Flash and has been a member of the national team since 2003. Wambach has said publicly that FIFA should reconsider its decision due to the unsafe surface the artificial turf provides for playing soccer and because she believes the sport of soccer should provide equal treatment for both men and women. Schumer and Gillibrand are supporting her push today to fight for the equal treatment of female athletes on the international stage. Schumer and Gillibrand said that, like Wambach, many women who have spoken out on this issue have faced retaliation from FIFA as a result. The Senators said that is unacceptable treatment and one of the reasons—in addition to the safety, prestige and equality concerns—why they are calling on FIFA to work with these athletes and game organizers to let the game be played on natural grass instead.
“We’re grateful that these Senators are standing beside us in our fight for an equal playing field at the World Cup. In soccer, the field means everything,” said Abby Wambach, a member of the U.S. Women’s National Team. “But what’s at stake here is more than just the surface we’ll be playing on – it’s about gender equality and standing up for what’s right. Women’s soccer fans around the world are watching to see if our sport will be given the equal treatment it deserves, and now we know that Congress is watching, too.”
Schumer and Gillibrand noted that according to a FIFA study conducted in March, 77 percent of female athletes agreed that matches at major tournaments, such as the World Cup, should be played on natural grass just like the men’s game. Not only is natural grass preferred, it is also safer and leaves players less vulnerable to injury. Playing soccer on artificial turf not only impacts the way the entire game is played, it also diminishes the prestige, of the sport. Schumer and Gillibrand said providing fair playing conditions and ensuring that players who have expressed concern about playing on turf fields do not face retaliation from FIFA is critical. Schumer and Gillibrand said that they are pushing to bring FIFA to the negotiating table, as the organization has largely ignored the concerns of players.
FIFA has never used turf fields for the Men’s World Cup, and with viewership and interest in women’s soccer at an all-time high, Schumer and Gillibrand say there is no need to diminish the significance of the tournament by forcing players to compete on an artificial turf field when a natural grass field is both preferred and the safer option. Women like Abby Wambach have contributed to the sport’s popularity, and the U.S. Women’s National Team is currently ranked first in the world. Schumer and Gillibrand said this team and the sport of soccer has made the U.S. proud and that the safety and equal treatment of these female athletes should be at the top of FIFA’s priority list.
Schumer and Gillibrand’s letter was co-signed by Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Edward Markey (D-MA), Patty Murray (D-WA), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Robert P. Casey (D-PA), and Maria Cantwell (D-WA).
The senators also sent a letter to Sunil Gulati, President of the United States Soccer Federation, urging him to use his position as a member of FIFA’s Executive Committee to support fair playing conditions and to ensure that players who have expressed concern about playing on turf fields do not face retaliation.
A copy of the letter to Sepp Blatter, President of FIFA, appears below:
Dear Mr. Blatter:
We write to express our concerns over reports that the 2015 Women’s World Cup will be held on artificial turf, whereas the men’s competition is held entirely on grass. We ask the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) to reconsider this short-sighted and counterproductive decision.
We are particularly concerned by reports that FIFA has ignored the concerns of female players over the safety issues and lack of prestige associated with using turf fields. Furthermore, we are disturbed by reports that FIFA has threatened to retaliate against players who voice concerns and demand the same playing field as their male peers.
Artificial turf both increases the risk of serious injury and fundamentally changes the way the game is played. FIFA has never used turf fields for the men’s World Cup. And it appears that it has no plans to do so having committed to using natural grass for the 2018 men’s tournament in Russia and 2022 men’s tournament in Qatar, host countries with climates at least as challenging as Canada’s.
FIFA itself has recognized the inferiority of turf to natural grass. In March, FIFA’s weekly magazine published an article titled, “How Bad are the Artificial Turf Pitches?” in which the author points out that male athletes routinely refuse to play on artificial turf, deeming it unacceptable, and “widely regarded as deeply problematic.” When FIFA polled top female soccer players around the world, 77% agreed that all matches at major tournaments should be played on natural grass, while just 8% disagreed.
Viewership and interest in women’s soccer has never been higher. The 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup Final gave ESPN its highest U.S. ratings ever for a soccer match at the time, drawing 13.5 million viewers in the U.S. And in 2015, the world will again be watching the Women’s World Cup with great interest.
Currently ranked first in the world, the United States women’s national soccer team has made our country proud time and time again. As members of the United States Senate, we are deeply concerned with FIFA’s treatment of these players. We urge you to begin good faith negotiations with these athletes, free of retaliation and with the equal treatment that they deserve.
Charles E. Schumer