There have recently been a number of high-profile cases where pregnant athletes were subjected to discrimination.
Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir, the long-time Icelandic national team star, revealed in The Players’ Tribune this month the legal battle she faced against one of the most famous soccer clubs in the world, Olympique Lyonnais, after she said her former club failed to pay her after she became pregnant. In collaboration with FIFPRO, the world representative body for international footballers, she filed a complaint against the club – and FIFA ruled in her favor in a landmark decision for parents’ rights.
“This story is bigger than me,” Gunnarsdóttir wrote on Twitter. “It’s a wake-up call for all clubs and it’s a message to all players that if they get pregnant or want to get pregnant during their career, they have their rights and guarantees.”
A week later, WNBA star Dearica Hamby said on Instagram that she was “lied to, bullied, manipulated and discriminated against” by her longtime franchise, the Las Vegas Aces, after news broke of her trade to the Los Angeles Sparks. Hamby helped lead the Aces to their first WNBA championship — all while pregnant. She announced the pregnancy during the team’s championship parade.
HAMBY:Says Las Vegas Aces “bullied” her for getting pregnant
WNBA:Does not allow charters, but Brittney Griner may have to fly private
SPORTS NEWSLETTER: Sign up now to get daily updates in your inbox
“The unprofessional and unethical way I have been treated has been traumatizing,” Hamby wrote on Instagram. “To be treated this way by an organization, BY WOMEN who are mothers, who have claimed to ‘be in these shoes’, who preach family, chemistry and women’s empowerment is disappointing and makes me sick to my stomach. We fought for funds that would finally support and protect player parents. This cannot be used against me now.”
Same day, WNBPA has issued a statement says the league will investigate the Aces’ conduct.
Both examples remind us of an ugly truth: Although women are celebrated for their role as mothers in public, the struggles they face behind the scenes, especially at work, often go unnoticed. While Hamby made headlines in September for revealing she was pregnant during the final, behind the scenes she was facing an ugly battle with her long-time club.
Although things have changed, more needs to be done to protect players’ rights during parenthood. And it’s usually the athletes who lead that effort — like Alysia Montaño, an Olympic medalist and six-time USA Outdoor Track champion who co-founded &Mother, an advocacy group focused on removing systemic barriers for mothers in sports.
Montaño in 2016 faced his own backlash, as reported by The 19th. Montaño was planning for her second child while competing in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. She had already done this before. She competed while pregnant with her first child. So she approached one of her sponsors about a training plan that would allow her to have a baby while competing. This unnamed sponsor did not renew her contract.
“We really have to make sure that these are not battles that women or mothers fight alone,” Montaño told The 19th. “These are best remedied if we can write them — in politics where it’s known that, ‘Hey, we don’t have to fight for this.’ These are our rights.'”
This is where advocacy groups like &Mother come in. On its website, the organization provides many resources for athletes, such as model language they can use for contractual language with sponsors. There is also a list of frequently asked questions for athletes who may be going through pregnancy, and ways organizations can best support and accommodate parenting athletes.
But it does not stop there. There are resources for breastfeeding, perinatal physical stability and recovery, paid family leave, facts about workers’ rights and much more.
Not too long ago I wrote a column to celebrate mothers and fathers becoming more visible in professional sports. I also wrote how reproductive rights are critical to offering athletes the ability to have control over their careers. This column is a reminder that this current generation of athletes is far less inclined to sit on the sidelines and accept this kind of discrimination.
Gunnarsdóttir’s story has a relatively happy ending. She, her partner and their baby are healthy. She plays for a new club – Juventus FC in Italy. She got paid what she owed from Lyon.
But let’s not forget that it took a FIFA court ruling to get here.
There is a part of Gunnarsdóttir’s story that stands out. After the club was ordered to pay her unpaid wages, the club asked for the reasons for FIFA’s decision. In the essay, Gunnarsdóttir points out that this may have been the first step towards an appeal. Here’s how FIFA reached its conclusion, as Gunnarsdóttir explained.
“They talked about the club’s ‘duty of care’, that there was no contact with me during my pregnancy,” she wrote. “Nobody really looked at me, followed up, saw how I was doing mentally and physically, both as an employee, but also as a person. Basically, they had a responsibility to look after me, and they didn’t.”
In other words, the club was unable to do the least.
The case about Hamby is still pending. Hamby has yet to announce the birth of her second child, sharing a photo of herself still pregnant with her Instagram post. In the post, she paints a vivid picture of how the club treated her. She alleged that the team accused her of signing an extension while she was knowingly pregnant and then accused her of not doing more to prevent the pregnancy. She writes: “Did the team expect me to promise not to get pregnant in exchange for a contract extension?”
Right now, all eyes are on the WNBA and the Aces organization for what happens next.
They have the chance of a new landmark judgment – or the chance to set us back.