Maternity Leave For Athletes, Explained

Why maternity leave is such an essential benefit for female athletes, like the women's hockey players threatening to play anywhere but North America.

I t’s a tough choice for top American female athletes: motherhood or career?

Legendary beach volleyball player, Kerri Walsh Jennings, said making the decision to take time off and have a baby was scary. In fact, she was warned against it.

“Before we had our first child, I was told not to do it because they’re like, ‘You just won the Olympics, you’re going to lose all these endorsements, people are going to forget about you when you hold your baby.'”

And when professional snowboarder Kimmy Fassani got the news she was pregnant, she started to worry about her professional future, and feared losing sponsors.

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“There’s so much risk involved with our jobs that I think it’s just an automatic assumption that if you get pregnant, you’re not going to do what you do anymore,” she said.

It’s a warranted assumption given the physical and mental transformation that comes with motherhood, let alone potential complications that could make a return to professional sports even more difficult than the already improbable return to athletic form following a healthy childbirth.

If only there was a law allowing for a certain amount of time off from work to care for a new child while ensuring these women an opportunity to return to their job.

Flashback to ’93

Twenty-six years ago, then-President Bill Clinton signed the Family Medical Leave Act of 1993 into law, which included a provision giving eligible workers 12 weeks of unpaid leave—keyword being unpaid—to care for a new child.

The FMLA ensures job protection, but anything above and beyond that is up to private employers, most of whom have repeatedly shown how little they value their workers’ well-being.

Today, the United States remains the only major country in the world that does not require employers to offer paid leave to new parents, according to data compiled by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. American moms (or dads) are entitled to zero weeks of paid leave under federal law.

Other nations offer generous paid leave. Parents in Finland get three years of paid leave, while our cousins up north in Canada get one year. In the U.S., any paid maternity leave policy that’s been presented has been criticized as a new national entitlement, a burden on small business, and best left to the employer to decide, not the government.

Maternity leave is a social safety net, but not for female professional athletes. In fact, 44.1 percent of private sector employees in the U.S. were ineligible as of 2012 and remain ineligible. The FMLA only applies to employers with more than 50 employees within a 75-mile radius working 20 or more work weeks in a year, and only those who’ve worked full-time hours for a year are eligible for maternity leave. The WNBA season is roughly 14 weeks, so pregnant players’ jobs aren’t protected under the FMLA, which is why the Women’s National Basketball Players Association collectively bargained for paid maternity leave at half their regular rate and health insurance to cover medical expenses back in 2014. The WNBPA has since opted out of that agreement, which expires after this season. They’re betting on themselves just like the U.S. Women’s Hockey team did.

Organize, Organize, Organize!

Back in 2017, the U.S. Women’s Hockey team announced they were sitting out of the International Ice Hockey Federation World Championship until progress was made in negotiations with USA Hockey. The athletes claimed USA Hockey wasn’t paying them a living wage relative to what their male counterparts received, despite the Americans medaling in every Winter Olympics since women’s hockey debuted in 1998.

They asked for $68,000 in salary, equal treatment, disability insurance, and basic things like child care, maternity leave, and to play more games. USA Hockey threatened to bring in replacement players, but hose efforts failed because the women’s team mobilized and convinced potential alternates at the college and high school levels to refuse serving as replacements.

Players’ associations from the NFL, NBA, WNBA, MLB, and the NHL announced their support of the women, and three days before the start for the IIHF games, the team and USA Hockey came to an agreement.

In similar fashion, the decision to organize by professional female athletes has led to several victories on and off the field and provides them with a benefit not legally afforded them by local, state, and federal law.

Now more than 200 female hockey players are threatening to play anywhere but North America next season unless their demands are met, including the creation of one, North American women’s hockey league. Athlete maternity leave will surely play a part in negotiations because women’s professional hockey players aren’t eligible for FMLA protections and benefits.

And if you’re still wondering if athletes organizing and taking their behind-the-scenes fights public achieves anything, just look at what happened in women’s tennis last December.

WTA Outrage 

On Monday, Dec. 17, 2018, the Women’s Tennis Association approved changes to player regulations, ensuring athletes are not penalized after returning from pregnancy or an injury causing a long absence. Before, female tennis players were punished for taking pregnancy leave.

These changes were brought about, in part, by former No. 1 ranked players Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka’s experiences after returning to competition from maternity leave.

Williams, who has an Open-era record 23 Grand Slam singles titles, was unseeded at this year’s French Open, despite winning the last major she played in 2017. It was her first major since the birth of her daughter following a lengthy absence due to life-threatening complications after giving birth. Williams was seeded 25th at Wimbledon and 17th at the U.S. Open, and reached the final in both.

Under the new Special Ranking Rule: “If a player is out of competition due to pregnancy or a medical condition, she is allowed 3 years to use her special ranking. In the event of pregnancy, the time period is calculated from the birth of the child.”

And: “No player will be bumped from her earned seeded position.”

The WTA also said it will ensure players “are not penalized or prohibited from wearing leggings or compression shorts without a skirt, dress, or shorts over them.”

Those changes weren’t made because it was the “right thing to do.” It was done through player activism resulting in public outrage.

On the International Sports Scene

The World Players Association, the leading voice of organized players in world sports and part of the UNI Global Union, released its “Gender Equality Principles” to promote the dignity of the players and the humanity of sport.

Principle number 4, “Just and favorable conditions of work,” puts maternity protection and protection in respect to family and caring responsibilities front and center.

“Sport cannot afford to have women players denied the opportunity to realize their sporting and human potential because of the unsustainable nature of their careers. Granting women, the status and pay they deserve will help grow women’s sport at all levels,” said Brendan Schwab, executive director of the World Players Association.

“Labour and economic rights, therefore, matter, starting with decent pay and decent work. It is without question that the fundamental principle of equal remuneration and conditions for work of equal value must apply.”

Guided by a set of principles, the World Players Association is calling on sports organizations to work in partnership with players and players’ associations to develop a clear strategic vision for women’s sport, including its economic development. In the meantime, it’s up to us fans to support, uplift, and encourage female athletes in their organizing efforts and fights for better wages and work environments by purchasing tickets and attending games.

Al Neal
Al Neal
Al Neal is an award-winning columnist at Grandstand Central writing on politics, labor relations, and the general rabble-rousing in professional sports. He spent a decade working in the trade union movement with various locals across the country and currently serves as Dir. of Education and Advocacy for the St. Louis Workers’ Education Society.


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