Is artificial turf unfair to women?

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Several, world-class women footballers claim that their sport’s governing body has all but relegated them to second-class status by forcing them to play on artificial turf in next year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada. But has it?

The question, which is important for many reasons of fairness, also contains a local, practical dimension. Moncton, one of six Canadian host cities for the women’s event, covered its stadium’s grass soccer field with the phony stuff on orders from FIFA. It cost the municipality $500,000, or a third of the total price.

“New irrigation was installed and then what you’re seeing is this spring they were able to finish that subsurface and then install what they call in the industry, the carpet or the artificial turf,” Stéphane Delisle, venue general manager of the event, said in May. “The surface is one example of FIFA’s mandate to ensure that we’re offering literally a level and equitable playing field for all of the participants.”

Some elite players beg to differ. Now, they are threatening legal action against FIFA for gender discrimination.

“We just saw the World Cup in Brazil,” Carrie Serwetnyk, an ex-player for Canada and the brains behind the non-profit Equal Pay, told the CBC last week.

“We just know there’s absolutely no way the men would play on fake grass. It would be a scandal. So to think it’s OK for the Women’s World Cup to be played on artificial turf, what kind of a message does that send?”

Added the women’s lawyer, Hampton Dellinger: “We know there’s no doubt that the men would not be asked to play on a second-class surface for their world class tournament. They weren’t this year in Brazil, it’s already been established that the men’s World Cup tournaments in 2018 and 2022 will be on grass. There’s no reason the women should be treated as second-class.”

Moreover, he said, “There’s certainly a very credible range of evidence that artificial turf poses a greater and unique danger versus grass pitches, particularly at the highest level. Obviously the only place you can have turf burns – and these are serious, they can really be incapacitating to a player – is on an artificial pitch.”

The problem is that there is also a “very credible range of evidence” that suggests just the opposite: That artificial turf is, at least statistically, no more injury-inducing than natural grass.

According to an article entitled, “A Meta-Analysis of Soccer Injuries on Artificial Turf and Natural Grass”, in the Journal of Sports Medicine last year, researchers “examined eight studies that compared soccer injury rates occurring on artificial turf and natural grass. In total, these studies report nearly 1.5 million hours of training and match play and almost 10,000 injuries. The adjusted injury rate ratios for all injures was significantly less than 1.0 indicating lower incidence rates for playing and training on artificial turf. For specific categories and specific injuries, several injury rate ratios values were less than 1.0. In no case did we find an injury rate ratios value significantly greater than 1.0.”

Indeed, last year, Justin Shaginaw, Athletic Trainer for US Soccer Federation, reported on his sports blog that just as many studies support artificial turf as do natural grass and “since the research doesn’t give us a definitive answer regarding injury rates and artificial turf. . .we know that the greater the traction, the higher the rate of injury. Wearing cleats made specifically for artificial turf, or better yet turf shoes, may help to decrease traction and therefore reduce lower extremity injuries.

“We can apply this same thought process to grass regarding increased traction and increased injury rates. Unfortunately, there may be a decrease in performance as shoes with less traction may cause players to slip.”   

None of which is likely to convince the potential litigants against FIFA. To them, the issue is one of fairness.

Elite athletes – both men and women – have long expressed their preference for natural grass. Is it fair that FIFA accedes to the males and not the females it represents?

On the other hand, is this treatment of women tantamount to gender discrimination when even the experts can’t decide which is the superior playing surface?

In the end, it will likely be communities like Moncton, where the games occur, that provide the answers.

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