Leveling the playing field

The USWNT's protest against turf is about equal footing in more ways than one

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A line was drawn in the luxurious Hawaiian sands last weekend, and it is one that had been forecast for some time.

Players and coaches for the United States women’s national soccer team stood on the turf at Aloha Stadium in Honolulu, and the joy of spending December in Hawaii quickly turned sour. They had reached their breaking point.

One day earlier, the team learned that one of its best players, Megan Rapinoe, had torn her ACL in a non-contact injury on what players called a sub-par grass training surface. There were apparently sewer plates and plastic coverings surrounding the field which played a role in the injury.

And now, here they were standing on artificial turf once again, for the sixth time in seven matches on a victory tour celebrating their 2015 World Cup triumph.

Aloha Stadium’s field, as described in a letter signed by the entire team and published in the Players’ Tribune, featured “sharp rocks ingrained all over the field.” It had seams that could easily be pulled up, as illustrated clearly by one of goalkeeper Hope Solo’s tweets.

So the players decided not to play, with the support of the coaches. Eventually, even federation officials agreed with the decision. This all took place about 24 hours before Sunday’s match between the U.S. and Trinidad and Tobago was supposed to kick off. U.S. Soccer informed Aloha Stadium officials that night that they would not play the match, and an email went out informing the public around 5:25 a.m. ET – just after midnight local time.

Around 15,000 tickets had already been sold for the match – a small crowd compared to other stops on this victory tour, but still enough to estimate about half-million dollars in ticket revenue alone. On this day, the very loyal fans of this team – some whom are now part of a class-action lawsuit filed to recover travel costs (tickets will all be refunded, U.S. Soccer previously announced) – were to be stood up for a greater cause.

That cause isn’t just turf. By now, most have heard about women’s soccer’s drawn-out battle over playing surfaces. The 2015 Women’s World Cup was the first senior World Cup – men’s or women’s – to be played on the plastic stuff. A group of women – led by the U.S. but with many international cohorts – called it discriminatory, saying the men would never agree to play a World Cup on it (they are right about that). U.S. forward, and world all-time leading goal-scorer, Abby Wambach led the charge. Wambach felt so strongly that she, along with others, attempted legal action in Canada to force FIFA into switching the tournament to grass. Their efforts failed, but they did ensure that at least the next World Cup, in France in 2019, will be on grass.

Yes, this is about turf. This is about the women’s national team playing 15 matches on turf in 2015 and the U.S. men’s national team not playing a single game on an artificial surface. The men’s team even played in the exact venue – the Alamodome – where the women played on Thursday, except the men had sod laid over the turf for their match. The women were afforded no such consideration.

That sod over turf didn’t go so well in May. It can be just as bad if not worse than turf if the grass isn’t laid properly and given enough time to take hold.

But the point that women’s national team players want to drive home is that the men have a choice. Even after such vehement public protest of artificial turf at the Women’s World Cup, U.S. Soccer scheduled eight of 10 – now nine after the match in Hawaii was abandoned – victory tour matches on turf. And the Aloha Stadium turf wasn’t even inspected by U.S. Soccer before the venue was booked.

“This decision wasn’t about ‘turf vs. grass.’ This was about field conditions and player safety,” the team wrote in its Players’ Tribune letter.

“It’s as simple as that. Soccer is our job. Our bodies are our jobs. And nothing should ever be put in competition with our protection and safety as players.”

As U.S. Women’s National Team Players Association general counsel Rich Nichols says, turf is a metaphor.

“The time has come for it to evolve,” Nichols said. “The time has come to put the sport on a level playing field in all facets of the sport and in all facets of the business of the sport.”

These are the kind of things that have all boiled up to this point. The memo of understanding (MOU) between the U.S. Soccer Federation and its women’s national team expires at the end of 2016, meaning it is time to begin talks of a collective bargaining agreement. The three daunting letters in the world of sports: C.B.A.

The protest of the U.S. women’s soccer team in Hawaii was a catalyst and a platform, but it was also a culmination.

For years, media have noted the rise of women in sports. Each December has brought similar headlines.

The 2012 London Olympics were seen as a watershed moment for female athletes.

The United States sent more female Olympians to the Games than it did males, and those women won more medals. The Olympics featured more women’s events than ever before and, for the first time, every country participating in the Games had at least one female athlete in its delegation – even Qatar, Brunei Darussalam and Saudi Arabia, eventually. A record 4,600-plus women – about 44 percent of the total participants – took part in those Olympics.

Jessica Ennis captured the home nation’s hearts in her gold-medal display in the heptathlon. Gabby Douglas became a gymnastics icon. This U.S. women’s soccer team pulled off another miraculous win in the semifinal against rival Canada to go on and win a third straight gold medal.

Headlines poured out across the globe:

“The women’s Olympics?” some asked, already knowing the answer.

“The Women’s Games,” others more profoundly stated.

“Year of the Woman,” another headline proclaimed.

Since then, we’ve Serena Williams continue to dominate all things tennis. Missy Franklin and Katie Ledecky have supplanted Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte as the next big swimming stars. We saw Mikaela Shiffrin take the Sochi Olympics by storm in 2014, becoming the youngest slalom champion in Olympic alpine skiing history by winning the gold medal weeks before her 19th birthday.

And this year, Ronda Rousey took over the sports world. She dominated her sport so incredibly that we wondered if she would ever lose. And then she did. She showed she is human, and everyone was that much more interested. These are sports stories. They aren’t defined by gender.

The U.S. women’s soccer team’s popularity took off this year. After struggling through the early stages of the World Cup, Carli Lloyd came alive and netted a goal from midfield to become the first woman to score a hat trick in a World Cup final and the team, already one of the most powerful and recognizable in women’s team sports, reached new heights.

MORE: Carli Lloyd on whirlwind year, Olympic clinchers

Television ratings broke records. New York City rolled out a ticker-tape parade for a women’s sports team for the first time. And the squad set out on a 10-game victory tour to celebrate (a tour which is, to be clear, part of the contract and part of how players earn some of their bonuses for the year).

And there was the turf. There were the poor facilities and travel issues, as players and Nichols reference. Enough was enough.

“We expect to be treated equally as our male counterparts,” one part of the team’s open letter reads. There is no gray area there.

The U.S. women are certainly fighting for better treatment. U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati admitted to the New York Times this week, “We screwed up” in Hawaii. The federation has promised that no women’s national team games between January 2016 and the Olympics in August will be played on turf, but Gulati wouldn’t completely rule out turf in the future.

The high-level issues the U.S. women face are not representative of the challenges of many national team programs, like their opponents this week, Trinidad and Tobago.

Trinidadian players go largely unpaid (they almost boycotted Thursday’s game over stipend payment issues before U.S. Soccer loaned them money). They train when they can, with what equipment they can and whichever field they can. Their coach, Randy Waldrum, works for free, but even he has trouble getting a basic plane ticket sorted out with the federation. Talented players are underdeveloped, and they plateau or stop playing. This happens all over the world.

But U.S. players have a platform like no other in the sport. They want better situations for themselves, sure, but there is a top-down thought that change for them will mean change for the greater women’s soccer world. Similarly, it is hoped that change around the world will start with FIFA reforms; it has been proposed that all six confederations have at least one woman on its FIFA executive committee.

Conversations for a new collective bargaining agreement for the U.S. women are only in their early stages. Parties are confident a deal will get done. Closing that deal will be about thinking forward. It will be about building “an infrastructure that is solid, so that in the future, the younger women coming into the game don’t have to deal with some these issues,” as Nichols puts it.

That turf at Aloha Stadium likely wasn’t much worse than some of the other fields the U.S. women have played on this year. Rapinoe recently described picking bolts out of the turf on a recent stop on the victory tour.

Hawaii was the tipping point. What comes next is the real story.