Updated: Dec 15, 2020
This post has been authored by Dhanishta Mittal.
Dhanishta is a fourth-year student of the B.A. L.L.B. course at the leading NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad. Her interests include public policy, legal drafting, and international law focusing on human rights, economics and sports.
This blog piece is featured as a part of our new 'Editor's Picks' series and our humble intention is to invoke a healthy debate on this topical issue. Any Comments/Ideas to the Editor can be addressed at firstname.lastname@example.org
Until a few decades ago, women’s participation in sports was minimal. Their contributions were confined to caring for the family, ‘nurturing the children’ and nourishing the household.[i] Although the internalized idea of women being the caregivers of the house continues to linger, their position in ‘male-dominated professions’ has surfaced in the past few years, particularly in elite sports. Traditionally, the sporting industry was exclusive to the male community since those activities involve demonstration of strength and endurance, qualities which are alien to the generic nature of women (which is sensitivity, care and compassion). However, in present times, female participation and achievements in the sporting arena have skyrocketed with multiple elite sport female athletes going down in history as ‘achievers’, at times surpassing existing male-athlete set records. While the individual demeanor of an elite female athlete has been concretized, motherhood and career continue to be a battleground for most women, especially when the internalized gender norms necessitate the woman to choose one over the other and not ‘balance out the two’.[ii] However, the male professional is never at the receiving end of any such conundrum, despite being a father.
With this article, the researcher primarily aims at highlighting the dearth of research on the impact of pregnancy on the career aspirations of a female athlete. Secondly, how the absence of cogent information on the aforementioned subject can cause the motherhood-career conflict to continue and the impact of its influence within the family systems of female athletes. Lastly, the researcher will also categorically note the welcoming changes in the industry and how it liberates female athletes to predetermine their families while also continuing to be at their career-best.
MOTHERHOOD VERSUS CAREER?
Although this predicament is not confined merely to the athletic industry, women have been at the losing end in terms of their career opportunities, in almost every other profession.
Most of the athlete endorsement contracts as well as the club’s or franchisees’ rules find no mention of female-related health conditions such as menstrual cycles or pregnancy or other associated conditions. Since these contractual clauses are made for the male community who do not associate with such experiences, coupled with lack of enough data to substantiate the female experience through research, such disparity and inequity between the genders continue to perpetuate.
The backlash that Nike was subjected to, after two celebrated female athletes in the United States called out the company for their anti-pregnancy stance, necessitated the beginning of a discussion on this once-presumed dichotomy of ‘motherhood or athletic career’. It is noteworthy that most of the female athletes became pregnant while at the peak of their career without any advanced planning, primarily because they fear losing their sponsors. Furthermore, the fear of not being able to make a comeback in their career post the pregnancy and their conditioned inability to be a ‘responsible mother’. Such thought and fears compel a female athlete to delay her pregnancy to the late thirties when her athletic career is nearing its end rather than making that decision at the peak of their career. To make it worse, until a couple of years ago, most of the pregnant women were instructed to restrain exercise or other forms of physical activities during pregnancies. Alternatively, existing research suggests that well-trained women can benefit substantially from training heavily during pregnancy which can ensure their quick return to competitive sport, post-pregnancy.[iii]
Isn’t it alarming how merely 10% of the women elite athletes go on to produce babies while others consider it to be a major hindrance to their sporting careers? Resultantly, women are resorting to freezing their eggs, as insurance for the fear that post-thirties, women’s fertility reduces. However, the conceiving figures from such frozen eggs have not managed to even cross the 50% threshold.
Although numerically, the number of elite athletes who have gone on to become mothers and continue to excel in their professional careers is minuscule, the trend has been increasing over the past decade. Such a movement ensures the presence of role models that instill confidence in expecting mothers to be able to balance both their professional athletic careers and their children. Apart from that, it opens up the floor for a dialogue with the society at large and the professional leagues, sponsors and other stakeholders, in particular, to acknowledge change and amend their policies to provide security to those athletes who are willing to experience motherhood while remaining true to their athletic careers. It also allows for research to be commenced into understanding the science of motherhood and professional sports to debunk a lot of myths surrounding female performance post-pregnancy and the need for a heavy exercising regime during pregnancy. Lastly, it will normalize, acknowledge and expand the opportunity to appreciate the accomplishment of women’s physical capabilities through research and previously unheard-of accolades.
However, presence of successful female athletes who are proud mothers can result in an aggravated pressure on expecting mothers to continue the expected cultural norms of good mothers ‘do it all’, which often comes at the cost of their leisure or recreational time.[iv] Resultantly, most women fear that they would fail to be a ‘good mother’ as construed in the larger social context, thereby experiencing psychological distress and deselect from sport, often resulting in their early retirement from their career.
Another cause for this image to perpetuate is the representation of elite mother athletes through media which often precedes the ‘mother’ title to the athlete followed by her sport achievement. Much of the data which the researcher has gathered for this paper focuses on women in individual-sport, while the discussion on complications for women in team-sport remains minimal. Team sports can be further exacerbating for women to make choices that can jeopardize the interest of the entire team at large.[v] Although their absence from the game can be compensated with other substitute players in the game, the possibility of negotiation with the leagues, franchises, clubs and sponsors is more cumbersome. The bargaining position between the athlete and the stakeholder is skewed primarily because unlike individual sports, the focus on the athlete is relatively reduced. Further, contracts remain standardized for the entire team in the beginning stages. Unless the athlete establishes her name in the sport and becomes renowned, her ability to transact contracts with such powerful entities is drastically diminished.
However, given that these sponsors pick up athletes in the beginning stages of her career, the futuristic goal of bearing a child does not occur to her. Often then, pregnancy is equated to that of an injury of the athlete. Thus, once the injury clause is availed for the pregnancy of the athlete, she automatically becomes ineligible to avail the benefits of the injury clause for an actual injury during her career. The fundamental issue with equating pregnancy with injury is the implied loss of choice; since one does not choose to get injured, it automatically implies that the choice of becoming pregnant is compromised. The fact that pregnancy is treated as an injury is reflective of the absence of any feminine perspective in the drafting of the standard contract for female athletes. The implication of a single injury benefit also coerces women to conceive only once throughout their contract, which is generally signed on a long-term basis. Hence, although not explicit, such a clause in the contract has the unintended effect of controlling the female athlete’s ability to conceive and make a conscious choice to grow a family.[vi]
EXPERIENCES OF ELITE ATHLETE MOTHERS
Because female bodies undergo tremendous changes during pregnancy, coming back into the team-fold on a competitive global stage turns out to be a gargantuan task for them.
Despite being on the US Women’s Soccer team for 10 years and winning 3 Olympic medals for the US, a top-notch athlete like Shannon Boxx had to fight tooth & nail to win her spot back into the team, post her two years absence during pregnancy. Such experiences are often the cause of worry for female athletes who desire to conceive while still at the peak of their careers.
The gravity of the issue was brought to the forefront in 2015 when the US National Women’s Soccer League experienced a slew of women retiring in their mid-20s after getting married. Not all women athletes have the potential to be a Serena Williams or Mary Kom (caution: they are individual sport athletes). When in team sports like soccer or cricket, the departure of a talented player, for whatever reason can result in the arrival of another talent. Such fears engulf women, especially the ones who are close to their athletic peak and/or are still struggling to make a name! Because the idea of mother-athletes is relatively new, most of the leagues fail to provide facilities that are conducive to a family. For instance, Portland Thorns (a franchise in the National Women’s Soccer League, US) had a strict players’ only policy which fails to take into account the family members of various players and thus, creating an unfit environment to raise a family. Alternatively, in the celebrated Indian Premier League (IPL India), there are provisions made by the franchises to accommodate the families of various players and arrangements are made at every location for the players to spend time with their families post the games. Although the IPL is male-dominated cricket extravaganza, facilities and arrangements are made to allow players to spend quality time with their families while still on tour.
Serena Williams, one of the world’s best athletes, not only played the 2017 Australian Open while being pregnant but also made a ‘comeback’ to competitive athletic sports in 2018, after a 14-month pregnancy leave and setting the record for the championship through her resilience and endurance even after complications during childbirth. What is disturbing, however, is that instead of glorifying her victory as an achievement, media representations showed her pregnancy as a curse or a setback, and she elegantly shunned every voice that questioned her decision to be a mother while continuing to defend her world championship title!
On account of social conditioning, women inevitably make an intentional choice to delay their pregnancy to focus on their career goals. Sania Mirza, India’s celebrated tennis star was questioned in an interview about her desire to ‘settle’, indicating her intention to conceive and raise a family even when she was at the peak of her career (she was World No. 1 in tennis women’s doubles when she was assumed to be in an incomplete household merely because she did not have a baby!). This appalling outlook to a ‘woman’s life being incomplete without conceiving’ is reflective of the vilified social stigma of such women being heartless and selfish, especially when they refuse to conceive as a matter of choice.
Although the researcher paints a gloomy plight of the circumstances that surround maternity for female athletes, not all sponsors and organizations have held that perspective. Several organizations have come forward and pledged to alter their policies to accommodate the concerns of an expecting mother and how to champion the discourse of ‘motherhood with an athletic career’ as opposed to viewing them as antithetical.
RESPONSE TO THE CHANGING MATERNITY DEMANDS
Nike, one of the world’s most renowned sport-clothing brand has been notorious for following anti-maternity policies. After multiple pregnant athletes came out on media platforms and started the #DreamMaternity campaign, Nike has been forced to alter its policies. Nike now guarantees full pay for 8 months prior to a woman’s due date and 10 months following her pregnancy.
This policy liberates the woman and gives her the freedom to choose when to conceive. Such a policy ensures that the Olympic training is not obstructed because of an unplanned pregnancy. Further, it promotes healthy maternity since it has been scientifically proven that childbirths during and post-thirties for women is often detrimental to their health apart from concerns about the rise in infertility post that age.
The WNBA, one of the biggest sporting franchises in the United States, has amended its policies through a collective bargaining agreement wherein women will be given a full-paid maternity leave, improved travel arrangements, revenue split, eligibility for a childcare stipend and housing assistance among others. The implications of such a policy will be of a major benefit to the mother-athletes since the pressure to perform is relatively curbed and they are provided with an opportunity to rest contrasted with being worried about losing their pay or underperforming and losing their career prospects.
The researcher acknowledges that a sponsorship contract or an agreement with a franchise is a commercial agreement and it is vital for the brand to make monetary gains out of such a commercial transaction by projecting the image of the athlete. Thus, the smartest brands understand that athletes become more influential, relatable and have a positive influence on the market. Thus, brands can exploit the potential of a pregnant athlete through marketing campaigns that capitalize on various virtues of a female athlete, such as resilience, compassion and dedication. Another fear engulfing most expecting mothers is a fleeting spotlight on their athletic achievements and extended focus on their role as mothers. This conundrum often forces women in all professional capacities, as inevitably their child is expected to be a reflection of ‘her’ values and not of the entire family!
In a 2016 ruling by arbitrator Carol Roberts, the Canadian Athlete Assistance Program was found to be discriminatory against their female athletes who were impliedly prevented from becoming pregnant due to their medical policy. This led to the medical policy in Canada to be replaced by the health policy, which accounts for multiple health issues including mental health, long-term illness, pregnancies and early retirement.
While for most female athletes, the beginning of motherhood is an end to their athletic career, some revolutionary female athletes take up the mantle to challenge the norms of patriarchy. Despite all the hardships surrounding childbirth, these resilient women have proven to the world that female athletes can also be ‘good mothers’ and raise a family.
A rudimentary lesson from such discriminatory experiences of mother-athletes is that the authority to determine policies that govern women sponsorship contracts or agreements with sport’s governing bodies should be bestowed to female athletes who have previously borne the burden of rampant discrimination and are best suited to act sympathetically to the concerns of their female peers. The bargaining power of the athletes and the organizations should not be hugely disparate, and in general commercial entities must be disabled from exercising coercive authority over the athletes to sign into discriminatory and violative policies. The continued notion of a societal image of mother that excludes traits such as competitiveness, dominance, aggression and tough-mindedness, in complete contrast to the single-minded orientation to the sport as the only route to athletic success, not only creates an abysmal anomaly (against co-existence of motherhood and athletic career) but is also downright discriminatory.
The world is dynamic, and perspectives are ever-evolving. This generation of powerful women athletes has proven to the world that the previously existing dichotomy between motherhood and professional athletic career can in all likelihood be a reality, one that not only enhances the performance of the athlete but also allows them to become powerful role models for their families and the world at large. With more female athletes deciding to #DreamMaternity while still at the peak of their careers, other stakeholders have also begun to acknowledge and amend their policies to make them more female-friendly and promote the freedom to choose. Lastly, women have time & again proven that they can indeed be ‘excellent mothers’ while also winning world championship titles.
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Cite as: Dhanishta Mittal, #DREAMMATERNITY, Extra-Cover: The Sports Law Blog of India (13th Dec. 2020), Accessed at https://www.extra-cover.org/post/dreammaternity [Date of Access].
End-Notes: [i] Marie-Luise Friedemann, Katherine Buckwalter, Family Caregiver Role and Burden Related to Gender & Family Relationships, 20(3) Journal of Family Nursing 313-336 (2014). [ii] Claire Marie Roberts, Motherhood as an athletic career transition in female Olympic athletes, 27(2) Women in Sport and Physical Journal 63-76 (2018). [iii] Kristen Kardel, Effects of intense training during and after pregnancy in top-level athletes, 15(2) Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports 79-86 (2005). [iv] Inge Kryger Pederson, Athletic Career: ‘Elite Sports Mother’ as a Social Phenomenon, 36(3) International Review for the Sociology of Sport 259-274 (2001). [v] Suzanne Cosh & Shona Crabb, Motherhood within elite sport discourse: The case of Keli Lane, 14(2) Psychology of Women Section Review 41-49 (2012). [vi] Kerry McGannon & Christine Gonsalves, Juggling Motherhood & Sport: A Qualitative Study of the Negotiation of Competitive Recreational Mother Athlete Identities, 36 Psychology of Sport and Exercise 41-49 (2018).