Blog Post #7: Women’s World Cup: An Off Field Battle

By Sarah Jacques

Every four years the world gathers around for soccer’s biggest event, the World Cup.  However, most people don’t realize that after the Men’s World Cup is over, the following summer the Women’s World Cup takes place. In 2015, the Women’s World Cup is set to take place in Canada, but before anyone takes the field, more than 60 women soccer players are battling (Federation Internationale de Football Association (“FIFA”) and the Canadian Soccer Association inside a courtroom.

Some of the world’s most famous women soccer players assert that FIFA’s decision to allow the 2015 Women’s World Cup to take place on artificial turf is a violation of Ontario’s Human Rights Code.[1] Ontario’s Code is a civil rights law that prevents discrimination on the basis of gender.[2]

 As of 2014, all six prior Women’s World Cups and all twenty of the men’s World Cups took place on real grass, and this is the first event that will take place on artificial turf.[3] Furthermore, the women highlight that the next two Men’s World Cups, Russia 2018, and Qatar 2022, are set to take place on real grass.[4]

Artificial turf is a game changer when it comes to soccer. The women are urging the court to see that playing on turf will cause three harms: 1. Turf fundamentally alters the way soccer is played; 2. The players would be forced to play on a surface that exposes them to a heightened risk of serious injury; and 3. Forcing them to play on a “second-class surface” is disrespectful in light of the fact that this is a global audience and their biggest event.[5]

Moreover, Entertainment and Sports Programming Network’s (“ESPN”) high press coverage led a number of athletes (men particularly) and the US National Soccer Team Players Association (which represents male players in the United States) to come out in full support of the women.[6]The men have made it clear that artificial turf changes the fundamentals of the game of soccer, and the World Cup is not the place to force those changes on the most elite soccer players in the world![7]

Canadian law states that all people have a right to be free of discrimination when they receive services, seek goods, or use facilities.[8] Section 1 of this law is in place to protect those participating in athletics from discrimination. In the coming months, the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, an administrative court of fifty-three members, will assess whether the claim warrants further review by deciding if the players have a prima facie case against FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association.[9]

While the world awaits further decisions from the court, the players have been very clear about their ultimate goal outcome: playing on real grass. Currently, the Canadian Soccer Association has declined to enter into early mediation with some of the top players, forcing the decision to be left to the Tribunal.[10] The Women’s World Cup kicks off on June 5, 2015. The Tribunal will either expedite the decision making process or drag their feet until the issue is no longer relevant i.e., the tournament starts and it is too late to change the field.

[1] Michael McCann, Player’s anti-turf lawsuit for Women’s World Cup not a clear-cut win, Sports Illustrated (Oct. 31, 2014), available athttp://www.si.com/soccer/planet-futbol/2014/10/31/womens-world-cup-artificial-turf-lawsuit-analysis-wwc.

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Marissa Payne, Top women’s soccer players to proceed with FIFA ‘turf wars’ lawsuit after Canadian Soccer Association rejects mediation, The Washington Post (Nov. 10, 2014), available athttp://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/early-lead/wp/2014/11/10/top-womens-soccer-players-to-proceed-with-fifa-turf-wars-lawsuit-after-canadian-soccer-association-rejects-mediation/.

[6] Female soccer players file discrimination suit over Women’s World Cup, CBS News (Oct. 1, 2014), available athttp://www.cbsnews.com/news/female-soccer-players-file-discrimination-suit-over-womens-world-cup/.

[7] Id.

[8] McCann, supra note 1.

[9] Id.

[10] Payne, supra note 5.