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.


FILE - An Amazon worker delivers packages in Los Angeles on Oct. 1, 2020. July sales events have be...

Associated Press

Amazon Prime Day deals are almost here. Should you take advantage of them?

NEW YORK (AP) — It’s summertime, and the bargains seem easy at a time when many consumer prices are high. July sales events have become a seasonal revenue driver for the retail industry since Amazon launched its first Prime Day back in 2015. While consumers may be enticed by the advertised can’t-miss savings on some […]

3 hours ago

Carlton Smith, left, and Justin Nimmo pose in from of the console of the Barton Opus 234 theater or...

Associated Press

Reviving Hollywood glamor of the silent movie era, experts piece together a century-old pipe organ

DETROIT (AP) — A massive pipe organ that underscored the drama and comedy of silent movies with live music in Detroit’s ornate Hollywood Theatre nearly a century ago was dismantled into thousands of pieces and stashed away. The Barton Opus, built in 1927, spent four decades stored in a garage, attic and basement in suburban […]

7 hours ago

A person uses a cell phone on Saturday, July 13, 2024, in Los Angeles. The FBI Internet Crime Compl...

Associated Press

What’s worse than thieves hacking into your bank account? When they steal your phone number, too

WASHINGTON (AP) — One Monday morning in May, I woke up and grabbed my cell phone to read the news and scroll through memes. But it was out of cell service. I couldn’t make calls or texts. That, though, turned out to be the least of my problems. Using my home Wi-Fi connection, I checked […]

8 hours ago

FILE -FILE - A Delta Air Lines jetliner is shown at Denver International Airport in Denver, June 26...

Associated Press

Delta Air Lines adopts new rules for flight attendant uniforms after Palestinian pin flap

ATLANTA (AP) — Delta Air Lines is changing its employee uniform policy following a turbulent ride through a social media storm started by a passenger’s outrage over two flight attendants photographed wearing Palestinian pins. The uproar over the July 10 post, which described the Palestinian pins as “Hamas badges,” led Delta to ban its employees […]

19 hours ago

Associated Press

Federal appeals court says there is no fundamental right to change one’s sex on a birth certificate

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A federal appeals court panel ruled 2-1 on Friday that Tennessee does not unconstitutionally discriminate against transgender people by not allowing them to change the sex designation on their birth certificates. “There is no fundamental right to a birth certificate recording gender identity instead of biological sex,” 6th U.S. Circuit Court […]

2 days ago

FILE - West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey presents opening arguments during a trial, A...

Associated Press

West Virginia, Idaho asking Supreme Court to review rulings allowing transgender athletes to compete

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia and Idaho are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review rulings that blocked the enforcement of state laws prohibiting transgender athletes from competing in sports. “If the Supreme Court takes this up, it will determine the fate of women’s sports across the entire country for many years to come,” […]

3 days ago

Pregnancy and sports a challenging combination for female professional athletes