As Clock Winds Down, “Turf War” Remains Stagnant

The ringing in of a new year often marks a time for change and progress to occur on both small and large scales. It is typically a time when resolutions are set, and steps are taken toward the betterment of oneself and others. For FIFA, the governing body of soccer, however, its 2015 resolutions don’t appear to include the betterment of its female players participating in this summer’s World Cup.

With just five months left until kickoff, the troubled landscape—both physical and political—of the upcoming tournament in Canada remains virtually unchanged. Since March 2013, some of the biggest names in women’s soccer, including America’s Abby Wambach, Spain’s Veronica Boquete, and Germany’s Nadine Angerer, have spoken out against FIFA’s implementation of artificial playing surfaces for the sport’s biggest tournament. In October, a lawsuit was filed by the players and a full-on “turf war” was waged against FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association under the grounds of gender discrimination.

The players’ case is highlighted by the fact that all 26 previous World Cups, including both the women’s and men’s tournaments, have been played on grass. Also, the upcoming men’s World Cups in Russia and Qatar in 2018 and 2022, respectively, will be played on grass surfaces.

Besides these details, the female soccer stars have posited that a turf playing surface will change the way the game is traditionally played, increase the risk of injury, and diminish their value as players in front of an international audience. The change from turf to grass in the tournament’s six stadiums would cost FIFA roughly between $3 and $6 million, which is just a fraction of the organization’s exorbitant yearly earnings.

Since the lawsuit was filed in October, FIFA and the C.S.A. have gone to great extremes to freeze the players’ efforts for change. Whether ignoring mediation efforts, refusing to address the situation as a gender issue, or presenting reprisals for players involved in the lawsuit, soccer’s head honchos are not-so-stealthily attempting to thwart the mission of their female representatives.

When asked by reporters recently if the Canadian Soccer Association has considered any logistical data regarding the switch from turf to grass, C.S.A. president Victor Montagliani’s response was a telling indication about where the organization stands on the issue.

Montagliani answered, “There has been no need.”

While the switch from turf to grass is still possible, each passing day makes it less probable for the change to occur in-time for the summer tournament. Unless the soccer higher-ups have a change of heart and decide to properly mediate with the female players about their requests, an upcoming trial will be imminent and could cause the hourglass to run out on the case.

Juliet Macur of the New York Times reported in December, however, that the desired pitch-changes could take less time than people think.

Macur stated, “Turf experts say they could start growing new sod by April or May and install it in time for the World Cup opener in June.”

Macur also reported that the use of existing sod could reduce the preparation time to just two or three weeks before the tournament, and further, if pre-grown grass is transported on movable trays, it could be implanted onto the fields just before kickoff.

Despite the plausibility of these options, the timeliness of the case is still one of the foremost concerns of the players, especially due to the inaction of FIFA and the C.S.A. regarding the lawsuit.

Yet, a small victory was recently won for the women’s World Cup participants, when the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario ruled in mid-December that FIFA and the C.S.A. had three weeks to respond to an amended suit involving allegations of reprisals against the players. While the amendment does not guarantee action in favor of the players, it forces the governing bodies to make some sort of timely acknowledgment to the case.

As the case proceeds into 2015, women’s soccer’s elite will surely be met with disregard and challenges from soccer’s governing bodies, as well as backward-thinking members of the media.

Case in point: Sports columnist Chris Rattue from the New Zealand Herald recently ranted about the turf war with an ad hominem piece attacking female athletes for their inferior genes. Rattue trivialized the turf conflict at hand by reducing it to an unnecessary issue created by bitter women who have an ax to grind with men.

Rattue said, “There is also a simmering resentment in women’s sport about its treatment which sometimes manifests itself in wanting to prove it is the equal of men. Genetics makes this impossible.”

The subjective and opinionated nature of Rattue’s attacking claims continued when he stated, “As with almost all team sport, top-level women’s football will never be as good to watch as top-level men’s football as we know it. Men are stronger and more dynamic. Call me a sexist pig, but the A-League – which isn’t exactly world class – is better to watch than any women’s football I’ve seen.”

Kate Fagan of espnW disputed Rattue’s claims in a poignant and fact-focused piece, unlike that of the self-proclaimed “sexist pig.”

Rattue’s comments, coupled with the inaction of FIFA and the C.S.A., draw attention to issues beyond the World Cup that loom heavily over women’s sports today. Issues of sexism and inequality, dogmatism and bigotry, still pervade through the 21st century sports landscape for female athletes.

While the start of a new year typically signifies a time when improvement and progress are dominant forces within a society, that is not the case for today’s most-talented women’s soccer players, who find themselves stymied by sexism and disregard. At the mercy of old-world thinkers and the rulings of the court, they are pitted against both time and obstinate philosophies in their collective quest for change.

And though the sand keeps moving through the hourglass, it doesn’t always mean progress is being made.

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Mobolaji Akiode’s Passion Ignites Her Purpose for African Female Athletes

(Courtesy of ESPN)

(Courtesy of ESPN)

Mobolaji Akiode is the type of passionate individual who makes others better by her very presence alone. The sort whose palpable aura of determination is understood just through hearing her speak. Yet, it has been a combination of Akiode’s unrelenting passion for success and commanding presence that has created a life full of purpose both on the basketball court during her time as a star player at the Division I and international levels, and with the non-profit organization she started in 2010 called Hope 4 Girls.

“I can remember during her freshman year (at Fordham University), the team was down by two points against Marist with one second left and Mobo was at the line for two shots,” recalled Eric Sanders, Akiode’s academic advisor at Fordham. “She made the first, but missed the second, then took off right for the bus crying because she thought it was her fault that the team lost the game. She was that kind of passionate leader.”

That fiery spirit is the reason, in part, why the 32-year-old American-born Nigerian found herself on espnW’s inaugural Impact 25 list of the most impactful people for women’s sports in 2014.

Akiode, a 2004 Olympian and former co-captain of the Nigerian women’s national basketball team, was stunned to see her name among those of women’s sports trailblazers like Serena Williams, Becky Hammon, Mo’ne Davis, Robin Roberts, and even First Lady Michelle Obama.

“To be on the same list as people who are all superstars in their own right is just amazing,” the 2004 graduate of Fordham University said. “It’s such an honor for me, especially because my work doesn’t deal with sports here in America. I don’t know if I’ll ever be on the same list as Michelle Obama again.”

Don’t let Akiode’s humility and unassuming nature fool you about the tremendous impact she has made for African females, however. Akiode’s organization is based in both America and Nigeria and is dedicated to the increased participation and empowerment of young and disadvantaged African women in basketball. Her groundbreaking work as the founder and executive director of Hope 4 Girls has made her a spearheading leader for international women’s sports initiatives.

Following her three-year stint with the Nigerian women’s national basketball team after college, Akiode worked as an accountant for ESPN in Bristol, CT until 2009. It was then that she felt motivated to start Hope 4 Girls, in order to serve others on a larger scale.

“When I was working at ESPN, I had the opportunity to do community service,” Akiode recollected. “It made me think about Nigeria and what it’s like to grow up as a girl there and I just felt compelled to act. So, I decided to jump two feet in with Hope 4 Girls, and here we are now.”

Since 2010, Hope 4 Girls has created a gateway to basketball for young African women through a series of camps and clinics run by Akiode throughout the calendar year. At each Hope 4 Girls event, the messages delivered to participants go far beyond basketball instruction. Akiode and her staff work to mentor girls about the need for education, health, wellness, and social awareness in today’s global society.

“The mentoring is the most gratifying thing about Hope 4 Girls,” Akiode said. “I have a great time playing big sister, both as a disciplinarian and voice of reason.”

Akiode’s work has extended beyond the confines of the African continent and stretched into the American college basketball landscape. To date, Hope 4 Girls has helped six African girls land basketball scholarships through its fundraising and recruiting efforts, including Division I offers to Virginia Tech, Texas, Northwestern, and Butler.

As a standout during her own college career, Akiode was an All-Atlantic 10 Conference performer who finished her run with the Rams ranked in Fordham’s top 10 all-time in scoring and rebounding with 1,167 points and 554 rebounds, respectively. She was inducted into the Fordham Athletics Hall of Fame last January.

Aside from basketball, however, Akiode knows the value of a great education in an enriching environment. The Gabelli School of Business graduate developed her talents and found her voice while at Fordham.

“I really blossomed during my time at Fordham, and not just athletically and academically, but also personally and emotionally, learning that I could be anything that I wanted to be,” Akiode stated. “It was a great foundation that prepared me for the global life that I live now.”

The self-discovery that Akiode experienced as a student-athlete at Fordham is what motivates her to help other African girls find themselves through basketball.

“The girls in Africa don’t know what the possibilities for their lives can be through sports, and that’s something I want to continue to expose to them,” Akiode said. “I want to show girls that they can be leaders in whatever they choose to do.”

Although the recognition she received from espnW serves as a delightful reminder that she is living her purpose and aiding in the progress of African female athletes, Akiode is far from satisfied with her efforts.

“Working towards building a concession of role models in the continent of Africa that young girls can look up to is what motivates me on a daily basis,” Akiode revealed. “I never wake up feeling satisfied.”

While Hope 4 Girls has made great progress for young African women in basketball, plenty of barriers still exist for females interested in sports within the turmoil-ridden continent. And due to the absence of sports for girls in most African schools and a general discouragement of female participation in sports in Africa, Akiode believes it will take an aggressive effort by women across the world to create meaningful and lasting global changes.

“I think that we women need to have somewhat of a chip on our shoulders that says we haven’t come far enough, and we’re not just going to relax because we’ve made some progress,” Akiode stated. “We can do more, and if we continue to work and fight like we haven’t achieved that much, then I think we will continue to break more barriers.”

As long as Mobolaji Akiode and other impactful trailblazers are leading the charge for women in sports both in America and abroad, you can bet an unparalleled amount of passion and purpose will be on full display, and continue to make females eager to tackle any obstacles standing in their way.

On Uneven Playing Field, Chand Stands Steady

Champion sprinter Dutee Chand is no stranger to life’s disproportions. The 18-year-old daughter of Indian weavers knows what it’s like to survive on eight dollars a week, live in a two-room mud hut with no toilet, and encounter gender discrimination and scrutiny regarding her appearance and performance as an elite female athlete.

Dutee Chand. (Courtesy of Vipin Chandran)

Dutee Chand. (Courtesy of Vipin Chandran)

That’s why the Indian track star, who fell in love running on the banks of the Brahmani River in India at age four, was not intimidated or defeated when a career and life-altering decision was announced in mid-July.

Following Chand’s two gold-medal victories at the Asian Junior Athletics Championship in Tapei, an unknown competitor requested for the muscular champion to undergo testing for what he or she believed to be an unfair competitive advantage. In response, the Sports Authority of India (SAI), in compliance with the rules of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) and theInternational Olympic Committee (IOC), tested Chand for hyperandrogenism, a condition involving the production of high levels of testosterone. Chand’s positive results scratched her from competition at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow at the end of the summer, and also banned her altogether from future races against women.

Because the International Olympic Committee (IOC) uses the measurement of testosterone levels as the distinguishing factor between male and female athletes, track’s governing bodies have also followed suit with these methods of classification.

Despite the clout that the IOC possesses in the world of athletics, flaws within their gender classification system have been repeatedly identified. Although testosterone is known to help muscles grow and aid in the body’s recovery after workouts, research shows that “there is no clear scientific evidence proving that a high level of testosterone is a significant determinant in female sports.”

According to Kate Fagan of espnW, the IOC’s desire to pinpoint testosterone as the source of athletic success furthers the divide between male and female athletes.

Fagan says, “Out of the thousands of genetic variants that athletes possess, the IOC has singled out just one for regulation, and it affects only female athletes.”

The playing field for men and women in the testosterone case is anything but level. While males are also tested for testosterone, problems only emerge when unnatural drugs that boost the hormone are discovered. For women, however, the natural production of testosterone is enough to raise red flags.

Fagan believes the IOC’s testosterone policy is a form of gender profiling, as well as a concerted effort to thwart the unconventionalities of female athletics today. Fagan says, “In some very obvious ways, this policy amounts to a witch hunt, a persecution of women who do not fit our traditional Western notion of femininity.”

Chand has refused to comply with expected norms, however.

Amid the decision to ban her from competition, Chand was faced with options that would lower her testosterone to the IOC’s appropriate level for females, and thus, permit her reentry to the competitive stage. She was told to either take drugs to suppress the testosterone production within her body or undergo surgery to control it.

Chand has been urged by coaches and family alike to undergo unnatural physical alterations for the sake of competition. These urgings result from the comparison of Chand’s situation to that of Caster Semenya; South Africa’s 2009 800-meter world champion who was banned from competition for gender discrepancies, but was later reinstated following testing and treatment.

Chand, however, isn’t budging.

“I feel that it’s wrong to have to change your body for sport participation,” Chand said in a New York Times article. “I’m not changing for anyone.”

Among those who have attempted to persuade Chand in the direction of compliance is a voice of reason. Dr. Payoshni Mitra, a research consultant on gender and issues within athletics, has worked directly with Chand to provide guidance for her situation and caution against unnatural remedies.

Mitra says, “The current policy that requires women athletes with hyperandrogenism to undergo therapy or surgery if they want to compete again is encouraging genital mutilation in an institutionalized way.”

With this advice, as well as her own personal convictions, Chand is not only electing to forgo the suggested therapies, but she is also refusing to hang up her spikes without a fight.

Chand filed an appeal in September with the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland and challenged the IAAF’s standards for female participation in track events. The case is expected to take months to produce a verdict about Chand’s future in track.

Nonetheless, Chand is not fighting alone. According to the New Indian Express, the SAI is in her corner, and has written to the Ministry of Sports on her behalf. They are currently in search of permission to go before the IAAF to argue her case.

Chand is optimistic that she will begin competing again by springtime.

“I can come back. Though I have to wait for another four years for the Asian Games or the Commonwealth Games, I am thinking positive. I want to run again,” Chand told the New Indian Express.

Despite the distress that Chand’s situation has brought upon her, she is most disappointed that the barring of her participation has gone against the mores of what originally attracted her to athletics.

“When girls play a sport, they are treated equally, so society becomes more equal,” Chand told theNew York Times. “I really liked that.”

Chand’s search for equality, both on and off the track at the elite level, has involved more hurdles than she could have imagined during her younger days along the Brahmani River. But, for this unmovable champion, a toughness and resolve persist, along with a belief that who we are in our purest forms supersedes what we appear to be in the eyes of others. For a female like Chand, whose femininity is constantly in question, there is nothing more exemplary of womanly strength and beauty.