The state attorney general is reviewing a letter which says Aloha Stadium defaulted on its agreement with the U.S. women’s soccer team.
The letter from U.S. Soccer Federation lawyer Lisa Levine said it was the stadium’s responsibility to provide a first-class field. But the field provided by the Stadium Authority for an exhibition last Sunday was “unfit, unsafe and unplayable,” she said.
The field “has seams, is uneven and contains pebbles as part of the infill through the surface,” she said.
The federation cited poor field conditions when it abruptly canceled the game last weekend.
Josh Wisch, spokesman for the Hawaii attorney general, said today that his office is reviewing the letter.
Aloha Stadium Deputy Manager Lois Manin declined to comment today citing the attorney general’s involvement. She said no repairs were planned for the stadium.
Stadium officials had previously disagreed with the claim that the field is unsafe.
“The playing surface was installed in 2011 and is still under warranty by the manufacturer,” Stadium Manager Scott Chan said in a news release Sunday. “This is a matter of preference by U.S. Soccer and being unfairly portrayed as a matter of safety. We have not had any issues with the safety of the turf with any of our users to date until now.”
The United States was scheduled to pay Trinidad and Tobago in Hawaii on Sunday as part of a 10-game exhibition tour celebrating the American victory in the Women’s World Cup last summer.
The U.S. team collectively issued a statement on The Players’ Tribune website on Sunday night describing the conditions when the team went to the field the day before the match.
“There were sharp rocks ingrained all over the field. They were everywhere. The artificial turf was actually pulling up out of the ground, and the turf itself was both low-grade and aging. This was a playing surface that looked like it hadn’t been replaced in years,” the statement said.
The poor conditions were not limited to the field at Aloha Stadium, the players said.
On Friday, midfielder Megan Rapinoe tore a ligament in her right knee during practice on a grass training field in Honolulu. Although there was no way to say whether the injury was connected to the field, the practice field was also in poor condition, the players said.
“Megan’s injury took place while playing on a subpar training field,” the U.S. players said in the posting on The Players’ Tribune. “The grass on the training pitch itself was in bad shape. All along the pitch, sewer plates and plastic coverings were laying on the sidelines.”
The players, who apologized to the fans, said they had to put their safety first.
The U.S. federation said it would issue full refunds for the tickets sold.
The Hawaii Tourism Authority had planned to sponsor the soccer match. But on Monday, the tourism group said it never shelled out the $200,000 it had agreed to pay the U.S. Soccer Federation to serve as marketing sponsor because it never received a fully executed, notarized contract from the soccer organization.
Sunil Gulati, the president of U.S. Soccer, told the New York Times the last-minute cancelation of a women’s national team exhibition game over the weekend in Honolulu because of an unsafe artificial turf field was “absolutely a black eye for this organization,” and he apologized to the team’s fans, players and support staff for the federation’s “series of mistakes” in failing to ensure that the field was suitable for an international match.
Gulati, who made the decision to cancel the game against Trinidad and Tobago less than 24 hours before it was set to be played Sunday at Aloha Stadium, said that federation protocol was generally to make a field inspection of new or unusual venues ahead of time. He also said that of the 10 venues being used for the team’s victory tour, Honolulu’s was the only one where an inspection did not happen.
Goalie Hope Solo of the United States shared a photo of the Aloha Stadium conditions with her Twitter followers, which number over one million.
Part of that, Gulati said, was the federation’s knowledge that the N.F.L.’s Pro Bowl would be held at the stadium in a few months. Still, he added, an inspection should have been done.
“We had a series of mistakes involving this game,” he said. “We screwed up. It won’t happen again.”
Rich Nichols, the general counsel for the Women’s National Team Players Association, said the incident in Hawaii was just the latest talking point in a necessary discussion about the use of artificial turf as a playing surface for the women’s team. Nichols did not rule out the possibility that the players might seek to cancel some of the remaining games on their tour, which is celebrating the Americans’ victory at the Women’s World Cup last summer. Two of the remaining three games on the tour are scheduled to be played on artificial turf.
“I think women have made it clear, not just here but around the world, that playing on artificial turf is just not acceptable,” Nichols said. “The women should not be subjected to playing on unsafe fields or under unsafe playing conditions. And artificial turf is unsafe.”
Representatives from U.S. Soccer plan to meet with the players Tuesday afternoon in San Antonio, where the next match of the Victory Tour is scheduled for Thursday. At that meeting, it is expected that the U.S. Soccer officials will reiterate their support for the national team and discuss the 2016 schedule of games that will serve as the team’s run-up to the Rio Olympics.
All of those games, Gulati said, will take place on grass — including an invitational tournament that the United States will host, most likely in March, against top women’s national teams. That tournament will replace the team’s annual trip to the Algarve Cup in Portugal. But artificial surfaces, despite the wishes of many players of both genders, are unlikely to disappear from use in the United States any time soon.
“We’re not willing to rule out artificial surfaces,” Gulati said. “It’s quite possible that the men’s team will play on an artificial surface in the next year, too.”
He added: “Is there always a preference to play on a well-kept grass surface? Yes. Of course. But I can’t rule artificial surfaces out because of all the different factors. Time zones, weather, stadium availabilities — there are a lot of things that go into scheduling games in this country.”
Gulati said he first heard concerns about the field at Aloha Stadium on Saturday while he was in Columbus, Ohio, for Sunday’s M.L.S. Cup final. He spoke with Nichols, who said that he is in daily contact with the team, as well as the team’s coach, Jill Ellis, and then asked federation officials to work with stadium staff to try to rectify the situation. Pictures of the artificial turf at the stadium showed gaps in the seams of the surface as well as filler pebbles made of a substance with sharp edges.
In a post on The Players’ Tribune, the website founded by Derek Jeter that is designed for athletes to speak directly to the public, the women’s national team players said: “There were sharp rocks ingrained all over the field. They were everywhere. The artificial turf was actually pulling up out of the ground, and the turf itself was both low-grade and aging. This was a playing surface that looked like it hadn’t been replaced in years.”
When it became clear that quickly fixing the field was not possible, Gulati said, there was little choice; the players had made it clear that they would not play on the surface.
“I can’t recall anything like this ever happening before,” Gulati said of the last-minute cancelation, calling the situation “incredibly disappointing.”
In the Internet post, the team also expressed disappointment in the grass training field that was provided for the team’s use; Megan Rapinoe, a veteran midfielder for the team, tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee Friday in a workout, and the team said the noncontact injury could be attributed, at least in part, to the “subpar” facility, which had “sewer plates and plastic coverings” along its edges.
Rapinoe’s injury and the cancelation of the match will serve as the latest flash point in a continuing and complex discussion about gender equity in soccer. The debate was particularly heightened last summer when FIFA held the Women’s World Cup on artificial turf fields in Canada — an unprecedented decision for a senior level World Cup; the men’s World Cup has been played only on grass. Several American players participated in a discrimination lawsuit trying to force a change in the surfaces for the Women’s World Cup, but after several unsuccessful attempts at a compromise with soccer authorities, they dropped the suit to focus on preparations for the tournament.
Critics of U.S. Soccer have also long railed against the unequal treatment of the men’s and women’s national teams — with the disparity in the number of games played on artificial surfaces among the more prominent issues — while advocates highlight the organization’s longstanding financial support for women’s soccer, its commitment to player development and its support of various iterations of a professional women’s league. Women’s national team players are also full-time employees, receiving steady salaries and severance when they leave the team; men’s national team players are paid on a per-game basis.
There is also a business component to be considered in the turf debate: While the popularity of the women’s national team is high, particularly after its victory at the Women’s World Cup, the revenues generated by the men’s team are significantly higher. In the past, that has made it easier, financially, to justify the expense of laying a grass field on top of turf for a single match.
Moya Dodd, a former member of the Australian women’s national team and a current member of FIFA’s executive committee, has been a leader in pushing for significant improvements in gender equity at the international level. She said that, on balance, U.S. Soccer’s track record on the issue was strong, particularly when compared with many other developed nations around the world.
“In most parts of the world, the women’s national team is more of a hobby than a profession,” Dodd said, “but the United States is an outlier when it comes to women’s national team activity and resourcing. The number of matches and days in camp each year is exceptional.”
That reputation, Gulati said, is why he feels so much frustration about what happened this weekend.
“We love our women’s national team, and we’ve put so much behind them,” Gulati said. “So, for this kind of a screw-up to happen just makes it feel like that much more of a step back.”
The United States will play Trinidad and Tobago on Thursday in San Antonio as the tour continues.