Turf Wars

Sarena Malsin, Sports Editor

As far as soccer is con­cerned, turf sucks. Granted, it’s definitely a better surface than the lumpy, rocky, un­kempt mini-forests that high school, premier (and even, ahem, college-level) leagues often have as alternative or backup fields. But when it comes to professional soccer, where resources are specially allocated to create beautiful, meticulously trimmed swaths of natural grass that make ev­ery step feel like heaven, grass fields leave turf in the dust.

This is for obvious rea­sons. Turf smells. It makes you question if you’re being cooked alive on hot, sunny days. It gives you killer turf burn that you’re certain must be riddled with disease from those shady tire pieces — ner­dles, nubs, niblets, or what­ever your preferred terminol­ogy may be. For a professional team, it also betrays a sense of amateurism, hearkening back to that high school vibe. Worst of all, as an unnatural surface liable to be ripped and torn, it’s dangerous for play­ers. These are the issues that the United States Women’s National Team has had to deal with since its conception as a team. The worst part of it is, the whole time they’ve had to deal with turf fields for even their international games, they’ve also had to watch their comically less successful counterparts, the U.S. Men’s National Team, play on grass surfaces.

The turf vs. grass debate has been an issue for the US­WNT for some time, with stars like Abby Wambach speaking out against the blatant im­balance that exists between the treatment of men’s and women’s professional soccer leagues by organizations like the U.S. Soccer Federation and FIFA. Wambach filed a legal complaint against FIFA for staging the 2015 Women’s World Cup on turf stadiums, but dropped it once it became clear her efforts were going nowhere.

Wambach wasn’t the first to speak out, and she won’t be the last. This issue, which has festered as an ongoing annoyance, has officially proven itself to be downright un­acceptable at Aloha Field in Honolulu, HI. This was supposed to be the site of the team’s Victory Tour match against Trinidad and To­bago, but the U.S. Women canceled the Dec. 6 game after star midfielder Megan Rapinoe suffered a serious ACL injury training with the team on the field just two days before kickoff.

Soccer isn’t a cushy sport. There’s a lot of contact, and injuries happen all the time — certainly not something to cancel a match over, no matter how important a player you’re losing. This makes it all the more meaningful that the team did make the de­cision to cancel, being professional athletes accustomed to injuries and keeping in mind the travel, planning and letdown involved for themselves, their crew, their opponents and their fans. The field was just that bad. They couldn’t take it anymore.

Head Coach Jill Ellis made it clear in an in­terview with Fox Sports that Rapinoe’s injury wasn’t your standard practice fare. “It hap­pened very fast. It was certainly non-contact. There were plates just off the field and she came off the field on the play. Did she catch one of those? I don’t know,” Ellis said. “Plates”? That’s not a sport-specific term you’re miss­ing. I have no idea what these mysterious plates lying so close to a professional sports venue are. It’s unclear what they actually are or where they came from but they were clearly posing a safety violation as obstruc­tions too close to the sidelines. Precautions to avoid large, potentially harmful objects in the way of players bouncing on and off the field were even taken for my amateur premier league games — parents were asked to maintain a pre-established dis­tance from sidelines to watch games.

The field’s condition was shameful. Sources said the field had open seams, was uneven and had gashes filled in with pebbles. Pebbles! Striker Alex Morgan put it bluntly: “The training grounds that we were given and the playing surface of the stadium were horrible.” She was quick to assign blame to the U.S. Soccer Federation, who is charged with checking the safety of fields before they’re used. “We’re put in a very hard position because obviously we want to play in front of these fans and we want to train before the game, but injuries happen when you don’t protect yourself, and when you’re not protected from those higher up from you,” Morgan said.

This criticism is entirely justified. U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati issued an apology to the team on Tuesday, admitting that the Federation failed to in­spect Aloha Stadium before the Women’s Team’s match, which is a pretty standard and simple safety precaution to take. What was his excuse? He assumed it would be up to par in preparation for the NFL’s Pro Bowl happening in a few months.

This isn’t just a hissy fit that the USWNT threw — and that I’m throwing — about playing conditions that didn’t suit them. This is an example of a professional, suc­cessful international sports team being overlooked and undervalued for no appar­ent reason other than gender. It’s true, turf surfaces are both cheaper to maintain and more durable for extended and heavy use, but using cost-cutting measures for one league and not the other is unacceptable and enforces the idea that women’s leagues are less legitimate than men’s. Why should the Women’s National Team, more success­ful and competitive than the men’s team, still be relegated to embarrassingly unsafe and underprepared fields? The youth of the women’s team as an established institution is no longer an excuse — they’ve more than proven themselves with three World Cup titles under their belt. Why did the organi­zation created to protect them and regulate their playing conditions drop the ball on a safety check because they assumed the NFL would handle it later for a more estab­lished and popular men’s league? Why did all qualifying national women’s teams have to play on surfaces inferior to the men’s for the 2015 Women’s World Cup, a competi­tion of equal caliber and significance to men’s World Cups?

Gulati, the U.S. Soccer Federation, FIFA and others have issued apologies left and right, but they’re not answering these ques­tions. It’s a good thing that this game was canceled and that fans were disappointed. Bringing in a larger, more invested audi­ence to this legacy of imbalance may mean that the USWNT will find the support it needs to set things in the professional soc­cer world straight — starting with their playing surfaces.