Why some sports writing on the FIFA women's soccer debacle lands us on the wrong side of history
Ed Willes is wrong.
Willes is a sports writer from the Vancouver Province. His columns find their way across Canada on Postmedia’s Canada.com wire.
Maybe you saw the one he wrote a couple of months back where he said that some of the best soccer players in the world must be delusional. It was headlined “Grass vs artifical turf debate hijacking Women’s World Cup story.” It started like this:
“Before the story was hijacked by forces which had no basis in reality, this was mostly about soccer.”
The “this” refers to the Women’s World Cup Canada’s hosting next summer. Those forces? Women. Some of the best female players in the world. Their delusion? Standing up for equal treatment by demanding grass rather than artificial turf for that tournament.
And he’s wrong.
Let’s back up a bit. His piece was lamenting the fact he and his peers weren’t going to be able to focus on the high drama and athletic performances of some of the best athletes in the world. When it comes to women in sports and the sportswriters who follow, this is progress, right?
Right. But it’s not progress when he and sportswriters like him use tired, old tropes of the (largely) male establishment to minimize legitimate workplace safety concerns. These are tropes that only exist to maintain existing power and inequality. And these are tropes that have to be put out to pasture (ahem) in order to build a truly level playing field (sorry). See, the best journalism speaks truth to power. Yet, too often sports journalism is the head cheerleader for that power.
Let’s unpack Willes’ story to see how this works.
“Seriously, man, she’s crazy”
Let’s start with Willes’ “reality.”
Most everyone would choose world- class grass fields over artificial turf fields. Fact. This even Willes concedes. Second, FIFA, the all-powerful, Vatican- like governing power of world soccer, has never and has no plans to ever play the men’s World Cup on anything but the most lovingly manicured grass pitches. Fact.
So, I’m not sure why he claims there’s no basis for female athletes to ask for what their male counterparts have been receiving, without asking, all along. And real grass instead of artificial turf doesn’t sound like too much to ask for— it is the World Cup of soccer, after all.
In fact, this wouldn’t be the first time FIFA mandated temporary grass fields be installed on top of artificial turf fields.
This perspective, apparently, has no basis in reality. That means delusional. That means crazy. See that? It’s the typical and convenient male response to inconvenient female concerns: It’s the she’s-crazy trope. Don’t tell me you haven’t heard it before.
Whether he intends to or not, he then implies that women should just suck it up and be happy for what they get.
He does this by quoting a player on the Vancouver Whitecaps who says that, yeah, he gets a few “raspberries” on turf but he gets a few bumps and bruises on grass, too. His larger point being that it’s hard to find a difference in injury rates between the two surfaces, which is true, but in doing so he also scrapes a little too close to the I-guess- you’re-just-not-tough-enough” bone.
In other words, this guy can take the artificial turf. Why can’t you?
First off, most of these women do play on turf with their pro teams. They’re not complaining about that. They’re complaining that men at the World Cup level don’t have to play on turf but they do. Which highlights a more damning if unconscious assumption —that this is not a “real” World Cup.
Second, and more troubling, this tough-it-out approach is a motivational tool used all too often in sport and by the sports writers who follow it that, at its worst, borders on a form of bullying. It invokes shame to coerce an athlete or athletes into working conditions he or she is not comfortable with.
Of course, this is tricky territory. I mean, all athletes have to deal with pain and discomfort and push through difficulties again and again. It’s why we love and admire them, after all, and why they inspire us.
But when there is even a whiff of this trope used to pressure women to play on surfaces men won’t deign to play on, we need to talk about it.
Suck it up and play—says who?
Now with that out of the way, let’s talk about some other facts, like the ones journalist Michael Sokolove uncovered in his book, Warrior Girls: Protecting Our Daughters Against the Injury Epidemic in Women’s Sports.
Sokolove, a contributor to New York Times Magazine and author of numerous books on sports, reported that young women are injuring themselves at significantly higher rates than men in the same sports.
For example, studies show women are tearing their anterior cruciate ligaments in their knees at rates up to eight times men. Why? That’s complicated. Likely some combination of form, over- training and biomechanics, he said.
So, doesn’t it behoove us to apply the precautionary principle here and make sure women have the best surface to play on?
Sokolove acknowledges this is tricky territory, politically, too. After all, it wasn’t long ago people were saying women were just too delicate for sports. And he’s clear he’s not one of those. His is a rigorous analysis of why women get injured and what can be done to prevent it, not a polemic against women in participating sports.
In fact, he goes on to point to an interesting study from none other than the United States Army. The study confirmed that in basic training women do suffer injuries at greater rates than me. But get this part. The study also found that it usually took a bigger injury to knock them out. In short, women get injured more, endure more pain, and come back from injury sooner than men.
Who should be telling whom (implying or otherwise) to suck it up and play the game?
Tougher than men
Now, back to that injury-rates-are- equal argument. Yes, it’s true that when it comes to injuries related to playing surfaces, most studies find little difference between plastic fields and grass.
In fact, we can go one step further. Any recreational player will choose the artificial turf field over a hard, knobby, patchy, ankle-turning, poorly maintained grass field. At that level, it makes sense to play on turf, frankly.
But this misses the point. We’re not talking about artificial turf versus your average lumpy cow-patch. We’re talking about world-class grass. There’s no comparison. It always wins.
A 2007 study from the British Journal of Sports Medicine makes another critical distinction. The title of the study tells you what it’s all about: “Risk of injury on artificial turf and natural grass in young female football players.” It found that while injury rates are essentially the same between grass and artificial turf, they are noticeably higher in game situations as opposed to training sessions.
Not hard to imagine why. In training sessions, there’s less pressure, less need to play at the edge of physical ability and endurance. Not like a game in front of a live television audience while wearing your nation’s colours. Just imagine the risks these athletes will take.
"We cast no shadows”
This all reminds me of the story Eduardo Galeano told of the World Cup in Mexico in 1986 in his book, Soccer in Sun and Sand. In it, he describes how Diego Maradona and other big stars were grumbling about playing games at noon, at the height of the Mexican sun’s scorching power but just in time for Europeans to watch in the cool evenings of their pubs and living rooms.
The German goalkeeper was reported to have said: “I sweat. My throat is dry. The grass is like dried shit: hard, strange, hostile. The sun shines straight down on the stadium and strikes us right on the head. We cast no shadows. They say this is good for television.”
How did the head of FIFA respond? “They should play and shut their traps,” he said.
Uppity players. Who do they think they are? Sound familiar?
See, as Galeano was pointing out, FIFA doesn’t exist for the good of the game but to turn all passion into money. And this is the thing about power. It treats any threat to itself with disdain. But that doesn’t mean sports writers have to pile on.
Why not just admit we made a mistake? Bite the bullet and install temporary grass fields like at previous World Cups. And celebrate the courageous women who took a stand.
Because this is the story now. And if you know anything about soccer, it’s what Galeano mentions earlier in his book:
“When you least expect it, the impossible occurs, the dwarf teaches the giant a lesson.”
And soccer is the art of turning limitations into virtues.
Why don’t we celebrate that?
Geoff D’Auria is a longtime journalist who was most recently working at The Tyee. He is also a longtime soccer player who currently coaches his nephew’s U-15 team, the Royal City Storm, in New Westminster.