Saturday, June 23, 2018
Sports

U.S. women dig their heels in. Good

The U.S. women's national soccer team took one look at the artificial-turf field that was to be the playing surface for Sunday night's friendly against Trinidad and Tobago and said, enough.

Finally, enough.

For years, they had put up with the scrapes and the rug burns and the rock-hard surfaces that come with playing on fake grass, but this was a field too far. The seams at Aloha Stadium were pulling apart, and there were sharp pellets embedded in the carpet. It wasn't safe, the players said, and neither was the grass field they had been given for practices at the University of Hawaii. (A day earlier, on that field, star midfielder Megan Rapinoe tore her ACL in a noncontact injury.)

So the team decided enough was enough. A year after they sued FIFA over artificial turf and five months after they won a Women's World Cup title on it, the players drew a line in the Hawaiian sand.

They told reporters the field wasn't good enough. They told U.S. Soccer officials they wouldn't play on it. And U.S. Soccer, left with little choice, agreed. And that was that. No game.

"We have become so accustomed to playing on whatever surface is put in front of us," the team wrote in an open letter posted Monday on The Players' Tribune. "But we need to realize that our protection — our safety — is priority No. 1."

Good for them. With their stock and their visibility as high as it's ever been, the players realized there has never been a better time to find their voices.

So goalkeeper Hope Solo shared a photo with her 1 million Twitter followers and forward Alex Morgan, who battled a leg injury last year, grumbled publicly about the "horrible" conditions. Morgan told Fox Sports that she now encourages teammates to speak their minds and ask "whether we should be playing on it if the men wouldn't be playing on it."

And there's the rub. The men's national team does not play on artificial turf. Even when it schedules a game in a stadium that has it, sod is laid down for the game, no matter the cost. The women, however, were to play eight of the 10 games of their current World Cup victory tour on artificial turf.

This is not a new fight. More than a year ago, a group of top players led by Americans like Abby Wambach sued FIFA and the organizers of the Women's World Cup for discrimination, claiming that the women shouldn't play the World Cup on artificial turf when the men's tournament demands — and receives — grass fields. The women never suggested a boycott, though, and a lack of consequences with teeth surely didn't help their effort. FIFA and organizers merely ran out the clock, and in the end everyone just agreed to get on with it.

But on Sunday the players stood their ground. And U.S. Soccer not only listened to their concerns but made clear it was doing something to address them.

Here's what you might not know: None of the women's international games set to be hosted by U.S. Soccer in 2016 will be played on artificial turf, said Neil Buethe, a spokesman for the federation. That includes a four-team tournament the Americans will host early next year in place of their regular trip to the Algarve Cup in Portugal, and any matches before the Olympics, where FIFA has again insisted on natural grass — because the men will be playing in the same stadiums as the women.

"We raised our hand on the problem in Hawaii and acknowledged that it wasn't a good situation and made that decision with the team," Buethe said. "In the future, we will hear them out and discuss what we can do before it ever gets to that point."

So the players have won an important battle. Again, good for them.

Now what?

The national team players do not perform only for their country. Nearly every one of them supplements her national team pay by playing in the National Women's Soccer League. That league, which does not have the resources of the national federation, is also trying to move toward natural grass. Of the nine teams in the NWSL last season, five played on artificial turf. But two of those teams are looking to change venues for next season.

That, too, is progress, albeit incremental, and the top women's players can nurture it by continuing to press for better conditions wherever they play.

It would be nice if they never had to play on turf again, at least internationally. But like their dispute with FIFA, winning that fight will be harder, and economics play a big role. Grass may be preferred for soccer but games on artificial turf will remain a part of every player's life in the short term. Still, the women's game has taken big steps forward in the United States, and the players are realizing that now is their moment to take the lead in improving conditions for everyone. But that is the long game.

For now, the U.S. women will look ahead to the final three matches of their 10-city victory tour. Next up is Thursday night's game at the Alamodome in San Antonio, which has — what do you know — an artificial turf field. — New York Times

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