Protecting Pregnant Athletes

It’s not often that you hear the words “pregnant” and “athlete” in the same sentence. In 2007 ESPN aired a documentary about this “underground topic,” revealing the difficulties pregnant athletes face. (see http://sports.espn.go.com/ncaa/news/story?id=2865230) For many years, the challenges of pregnant athletes had been largely ignored, and in unfortunate cases, even made worse by a lack of support on college campuses on the part of both coaches and administration. Many student athletes with an unintended pregnancy feared the loss of their athletic scholarship which allowed them to pursue further education. And for good reason. Before recently, Title IX prohibited discrimination based on gender, but there was no policy on discrimination based on pregnancy. Countless stories showed that indeed athletes lost scholarships, were ignored by coaches, and were uninvited back to the team as a result of their choice to have their baby. Student athletes must sign a contract detailing the relationship between the university and the student when they are on scholarship, and some contracts even made a student promise to not get pregnant with the threat of losing her scholarship.

We have come a long way since 2007, and the  protection now offered to pregnant student athletes is a cause for celebration! Title IX and the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) Letter now protect student athletes against discrimination or loss of scholarship, and also details that she can continue to play until medically unsafe (determined by the athlete and her physician, not the coach), and that she may return to the team once safe to do so. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), which had long been silent on this issue, changed its Division I rules after ESPN’s documentary to explicitly prohibit the pulling of a scholarship on the basis of pregnancy. It even has a policy and resource book to address pregnant athletes: “Pregnant and Parenting Student-Athletes” (http://www.nacua.org/documents/NCAAParentingHandbook.pdf) . The status quo has changed and continues to change.

Pregnancy can alter the course of a career, whether athletic or educational, but it does not have to cause the end of either. Now, “pregnant athlete” is becoming less of an oxymoron. Colleges and universities are creating and changing policies to reflect support for women who refuse to choose between their baby and their scholarship. This is the same protection that is extended towards athletes who get injured. Administrations are realizing how important it is to protect pregnant athletes from the unjust discrimination and/or loss of scholarships as a result of a life-giving choice. Athletes by their very nature are devoted to strengthening their bodies and minds, and conditioning themselves to never give up. When a college student athlete becomes pregnant, why would anyone be surprised at her determination to give birth to her baby with the intent to continue schooling and to return to her sports team? Pregnancy may change a woman’s body, but it doesn’t change her love for the game, and it certainly shouldn’t change her opportunity to continue her education.

If you or a woman athlete you know is being discriminated against because of a pregnancy, know that you are protected, and do not have to stand for it. Talk to your Title IX coordinator or call the Alliance Defense Fund to defend your case.

http://www.law.harvard.edu/students/orgs/jlg/vol312/323-366.pdf