Pregnancy and sports a challenging combination for female professional athletes

May 29, 2023, 11:37 AM

FILE - Los Angeles Sparks forward Dearica Hamby (5) drives to the basket while being guarded by Pho...

FILE - Los Angeles Sparks forward Dearica Hamby (5) drives to the basket while being guarded by Phoenix Mercury forward Michaela Onyenwere (12) during a WNBA basketball game May 19, 2023, in Los Angeles. Recent allegations by Hamby that her coach harassed her for being pregnant have shined a renewed spotlight on one of the biggest challenges that female professional athletes face. The athletes say that pregnant athletes continue to encounter attitudes ranging from ambivalent to outright hostile from leagues, coaches — and even fellow players. (AP Photo/Jeff Lewis, File)

(AP Photo/Jeff Lewis, File)

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Pro soccer player Jess McDonald was traded across six teams in her first five years as a single parent, making it difficult to find, let alone afford, child care in new cities. She and her then-8-month-old son were often forced to share a hotel room with a teammate — and sometimes she had no choice but to bring him with her to practice.

“If I’d have a bad game, you know, my kid would be blamed for it at times, and it was just like, ‘Oh, was your kid up late at night?’” the U.S. Women’s National Team player said in a recent interview.

Arizona State basketball coach Charli Turner Thorne had three children without taking maternity leave. And New York Liberty head coach and former WNBA player Sandy Brondello — acknowledging the difficulties that she would face if she got pregnant — waited to have kids until she retired as a player at age 38.

Juggling the demands of parenthood with those of a professional sports career is just one of myriad challenges female athletes face in an industry that also has been rife with pay disparities, harassment and bullying in the 27 years since the WNBA, the first women’s professional sports league, was formed.

The issue once again drew national attention right before the season began, when WNBA player Dearica Hamby said she had been harassed by her coach for getting pregnant during the season.

Las Vegas Aces Coach Becky Hammon, one of the league’s marquee figures and a six-time WNBA All-Star, denied bullying Hamby; she said the player wasn’t traded to the Los Angeles Sparks because she was pregnant. The trade, she said, had “everything to do with freeing up money to sign free agents.”

Still, Hammon said she may have made a “misstep” by asking Hamby at one point about her pregnancy, and she indicated that the rules in the WNBA “regarding pregnant players and how that looks within an organization” have to be better defined, shining a light on the balancing act of having a family and maintaining a professional sports career.

Women have never been formally banned from the WNBA for getting pregnant; in fact, the first player to sign with the league in 1997, Sheryl Swoopes, was expecting when she did so. But pregnant athletes have encountered attitudes ranging from ambivalent to outright hostile from leagues, coaches, fellow players and sponsors throughout the years.

As recently as 2019, Olympic runners Allyson Felix and Kara Goucher spoke out against Nike for slashing their pay and then dropping them for becoming pregnant. And it’s taken years for professional women’s leagues to provide their athletes with the support systems they need to balance their family and career obligations.

“I’ve been walking on eggshells as a mom in this league since Day 1,” said McDonald, who last week announced her second pregnancy.

McDonald said that back in 2012, she trained up until two weeks before giving birth; it wasn’t until last year that players in the league were guaranteed paid maternity leave. Arizona State’s Thorne told the AP she once returned to work just two days after giving birth.

“We’re light years ahead of where we were, you know, 20-some years ago in terms of people understanding that they have to support women’s rights,” Thorne said. Still, “there is pressure on you as the athlete, as the coach, as that person, that woman either starting their family or having kids, to get back to their job” soon after giving birth.

Under the WNBA’s most recent collective bargaining agreement, which was ratified in 2020, league members receive their full salary while on maternity leave, though each player has to individually negotiate the length of her leave. During the season, players with children under 13 can receive up to $5,000 a year for child care, and a paid-for two-bedroom apartment.

A small number of elite, veteran athletes who have played eight or more seasons can be reimbursed up to $20,000 per year for costs directly related to adoption, surrogacy, egg freezing or other fertility treatments. Per player, the amount is capped at a total of $60,000. Compared to other industries, this is a progressive offering that is inclusive of LGBTQ+ athletes.

“We’ve made strides and everything,” Thorne said, but she added that the leagues still have a long way to go to support athletes who become mothers.

“There’s always this little asterisk, that it has to be after your eighth year of service to get” fertility benefits, said four-time WNBA All-Star Breanna Stewart, who plays for the New York Liberty and has a 2-year-old daughter with her wife. Stewart’s wife is pregnant with their second child now.

Stewart said child care stipends aren’t dispensed freely without requiring something in return: She said she and other players have to submit itemized receipts for such necessities as diapers and babysitters. “If you don’t go to them, they don’t give it to you,” Stewart said. “You have to go and send invoices and it’s a little bit more complicated than it seems.”

Facing these challenges, many women in sports, like Brondello, decide to have kids after they retire — or to forgo parenthood altogether.

“Female athletes shouldn’t have to give up motherhood because they want to be an athlete,” said Dr. Kathryn Ackerman, a sports medicine physician based in Boston and the co-chair of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee’s women’s health task force.

Ackerman said there’s a fear that when female athletes become parents, they may not value being an athlete as much. She said that is a fallacy.

The record books are replete with examples of female athletes who became parents and continued to perform at the highest level.

Former tennis star Serena Williams famously won a grand slam when she was about eight weeks pregnant. Professional swimmers, runners and basketball players have all competed while pregnant: Beach volleyball player Kerri Walsh Jennings even won Olympic medals.

Mothers “often are better athletes because they learn how to manage their time better, they understand their bodies better,” Ackerman said. “And they may be peaking even later in life.”


Associated Press Basketball Writer Doug Feinberg in New York contributed to this report.


Associated Press

Russia accuses US of promoting ties between Israel and Arabs before Israeli-Palestinian peace deal

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Russia accused the United States on Wednesday of promoting Israel’s normalization of relations with Arab nations and circumventing the Arab Peace Initiative launched by Saudi Arabia in 2002, which calls for a settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before any diplomatic recognition of Israel. The statement by Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia […]

3 days ago

Associated Press

Winner of $1.6 billion Mega Millions jackpot claims prize in Florida

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — The winner of the $1.6 billion Mega Millions jackpot in August has come forward to claim the prize, officials said Wednesday. Under a new Florida law, the winner’s name remains anonymous for 90 days from the date the prize was claimed, which was on Sept. 25, lottery officials said in […]

3 days ago

Hudson, 7, left, Callahan, 13, middle, and Keegan Pruente, 10, right, stand outside their school on...

Associated Press

More schools are adopting 4-day weeks. For parents, the challenge is day 5

INDEPENDENCE, Mo. (AP) — It’s a Monday in September, but with schools closed, the three children in the Pruente household have nowhere to be. Callahan, 13, contorts herself into a backbend as 7-year-old Hudson fiddles with a balloon and 10-year-old Keegan plays the piano. Like a growing number of students around the U.S, the Pruente […]

6 days ago

A sign marks a roadside rest stop that has been made to look like the historic security gate that a...

Associated Press

Birthplace of the atomic bomb braces for its biggest mission since the top-secret Manhattan Project

LOS ALAMOS, N.M. (AP) — Los Alamos was the perfect spot for the U.S. government’s top-secret Manhattan Project. Almost overnight, the ranching enclave on a remote plateau in northern New Mexico was transformed into a makeshift home for scientists, engineers and young soldiers racing to develop the world’s first atomic bomb. Dirt roads were hastily […]

7 days ago

Associated Press

Correction: High Speed Rail-Florida story

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — In a story published Sept. 22, 2023, about the start of high-speed passenger train service between Miami and Orlando, The Associated Press erroneously referred to someone struck and killed by a Brightline train. The victim was a pedestrian, not a passenger.

9 days ago

FILE - Confetti flies as Dearborn mayor candidate Abdullah Hammoud prepares to speak to supporters ...

Associated Press

Census shows 3.5 million Middle Eastern residents in US, Venezuelans fastest growing Hispanic group

The United States had 3.5 million residents who identify as Middle Eastern or North African, Venezuelans were the fastest-growing Hispanic group last decade and Chinese and Asian Indians were the two largest Asian groups, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The most detailed race and ethnicity data to date from the 2020 census was released […]

10 days ago

Sponsored Articles

Swedish Cyberknife...

September is Prostate Cancer Awareness Month

September is a busy month on the sports calendar and also holds a very special designation: Prostate Cancer Awareness Month.

Ziply Fiber...

Dan Miller

The truth about Gigs, Gs and other internet marketing jargon

If you’re confused by internet technologies and marketing jargon, you’re not alone. Here's how you can make an informed decision.

Education families...

Education that meets the needs of students, families

Washington Virtual Academies (WAVA) is a program of Omak School District that is a full-time online public school for students in grades K-12.

Emergency preparedness...

Emergency planning for the worst-case scenario

What would you do if you woke up in the middle of the night and heard an intruder in your kitchen? West Coast Armory North can help.

Innovative Education...

The Power of an Innovative Education

Parents and students in Washington state have the power to reimagine the K-12 educational experience through Insight School of Washington.

Medicare fraud...

If you’re on Medicare, you can help stop fraud!

Fraud costs Medicare an estimated $60 billion each year and ultimately raises the cost of health care for everyone.

Pregnancy and sports a challenging combination for female professional athletes