World Cup turf war suit heads to mediation

A group of the world's top female soccer players will participate in mediation with the Canadian Soccer Association in an attempt to resolve their dispute over the use of artificial turf fields at next summer's FIFA Women's World Cup in Canada.

The decision to go to mediation came after the court handling the lawsuit brought last month by the athletes -- who say staging the competition on turf as planned violates the country's gender discrimination laws -- declined the players' request for an expedited hearing.

"Given the jurisdictional complexity of this case, I am far from certain that it would be possible to ... render a decision on the merits within a few months," Jo-Anne Pickel, vice chair of the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, wrote in her decision Friday, a copy of which was obtained by ESPN.

The parties have seven days to inform the court of their willingness to engage in arbitration. However, Pickel noted that both sides had previously agreed to the step.

"Today's decision paves the way for immediate mediation of the dispute," Hampton Dellinger, the players' lead attorney, said in a statement to ESPN. "We trust FIFA will join, as well, and we look forward to the talks beginning soon."

On Thursday, the CSA suggested in a filing to the court that it could withdraw as host of the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup if it was compelled to stage next summer's competition on natural grass fields.

Along with FIFA, the CSA is organizing the tournament, which is scheduled to take place in six Canadian cities next June and July.

In addition to disputing the merits of the players' case, Thursday's filing states that "the Tribunal should not make an order which would interfere with the ability of the CSA to follow through on its commitment to host the competition."

The CSA argues that the choice to stage the event on synthetic surfaces was made in good faith and "not based on the gender of the applicants, but on the type of fields available and suitable for use" in Canada.

"The competition will be held in some of Canada's best facilities, where both male and female players regularly engage in professional and international competitions," the filing reads. "The CSA is not treating female players less favorably than it treats male players."

FIFA responded to the players' complaint by arguing that the Canadian court does not have jurisdiction over the Switzerland-based organization or World Cup venues not located in Ontario. Ottawa is the lone host city in that province.

Global soccer's governing body also refuted the merits of players claims, stating, among other things, that "there is no increased risk of injury to players who play on artificial surfaces as compared with natural grass," and that the turf slated to be used at Canada 2015 is "not inferior to natural grass in any respect."

FIFA adds that installing grass fields at all or some of the venues isn't logistically feasible.

"The use of natural grass in Canadian stadia would not be possible given that these venues are multi-use venues," FIFA's filing reads. "Installation of natural grass surfaces would not be compatible with the needs of other users, such as the Canadian Football League, who plays on turf."

The players, however, believe grass can be installed and removed in a timely fashion and at a reasonable cost. Last month, they released a proposal developed in consultation with grass and soccer field experts across North America that they say details "the many ways to ensure that the World Cup is played on world class fields."

On Friday, a group of 13 U.S. senators led by Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, wrote to FIFA president Sepp Blatter and U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati, the lone American on FIFA's Executive Committee, urging them to find a solution that would allow the competition to be played on grass.