Last month, Serena Williams — the greatest athlete of our time (don’t @ me, it’s true) — played in her first major tournament since giving birth to her daughter. But, as excited as fans and media touts were to have her back competing, most were outraged when they discovered that she would have to enter the French Open unseeded, as her protected No. 1 ranking from the Women’s Tennis Association did not apply to the tournament’s seeding.
Ivanka Trump weighed in on Twitter, saying that Williams was being “penalized professionally for having a child,” and calling on the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) to change the rule “immediately.” USA Today said that Williams was being “punished” for having a baby.
The outrage cycle was effective. Wimbledon seeded Williams No. 25 for the Championships — not high enough for the liking of many, but far better than nothing — and the U.S. Open announced that it would change its seeding protocol to account for pregnancies. Behold, the power of Serena! Mission accomplished, right?
Well, not so fast. Because when it comes to maternity rights for professional female athletes, seeding for top players isn’t even in the top half of the list of their biggest concerns. And the outsized focus on Williams’ seeding folderol could end up distracting attention from the biggest problems that pregnant athletes face — both during their pregnancies and in their comebacks — such as insurance, protected contracts, and child care.
If those sound like the kinds of basic things that should have already been taken care of long ago, well then, you’re absolutely right. Unfortunately, the ideal is far from the reality.
Women who compete in sports can’t simply continue to work right up until the moment they’re ready to pop like their desk-bound counterparts, so it’s not unusual for them to take a year — or more — out of competition and training. And in many cases, these pro athletes have little-to-no guaranteed income during that time.
In team sports, such as basketball, they’re sometimes eligible to earn 50 percent of their contract when they’re off for maternity leave. But even that isn’t a given. For WNBA players, it is only applicable if they’re currently under a contract; players who are free agents or on expiring contracts when they get pregnant are in a much more precarious position. And while women’s soccer players on the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT) are eligible for maternity leave, rank-and-file players in the National Women’s Soccer League, who already earn much less money than their national team counterparts, don’t have any such maternity protections.
But the situation is even worse in individual sports, where the fulfillment of sponsor contracts hinge upon results — or at least appearances — in tournaments, and where if you’re not competing, you’re obviously not getting any prize money.
There was, however, a recent breakthrough for athletes seeking a solution to this problem — though it didn’t come from Serena. Just last week, Stacey Lewis, a two-time major champion on the Ladies’ Professional Golf Association Tour (LPGA), made a landmark announcement: One of her main sponsors, KPMG, is going to pay Lewis the full value of her contract while she is off of the LPGA Tour on maternity leave. Believe it or not, this is the first time this has happened in LPGA Tour history.
“I think a lot of people were shocked to learn that that had never happened before,” Lewis told CNN. “Players that were, that are moms and have kids, they thought it was the greatest thing ever, just because they had been in my position before and they know what that feels like. They just thought it was — I mean, they thought it was unbelievable.”
Getting pregnancy leave written into contracts in both team and individual sports would be a huge boost for pregnant athletes, as would arranging insurance options that would be affordable and effective even if a player found out they were pregnant during, say, free agency. But these mothers also need support when they return to pro competition as well. Babies don’t just watch themselves, you know.
The NWSL currently provides no child care assistance for its players, and neither does the WNBA. (Many individual teams have very family-friendly atmospheres, but that is not the same as actually assisting with child care.) And, in the WTA, former WTA No. 1 Victoria Azarenka, was shocked when she returned from pregnancy last year to find out that the women’s tennis tour offered far less child care than the men’s tour, because historically men have traveled with families, while women have not.
“I have been already talking about this point (of needing daycare services at tournaments) to some of the people in WTA,” Azarenka told reporters. “From my own power, I’ll do anything to make that happen, because I think it’s really important. The guys [playing the ATP Tour] do have that luxury of having the nurseries and stuff at every event and I think it’s time for women to have the same benefit. Because I think for women it’s much more important and harder.”
This year, Azarenka, who is a member of the WTA Player’s Council, said she understood why people were upset with the fact that Williams wasn’t seeded upon her return to professional tennis. However, she pointed out that she and Williams are the exception, not the rule, both when it comes to talent and financial means. They have earned enough in their careers to afford all the child care they need; and have had enough success to earn enough wild cards to get into any tournament they want as they get their body and game back into form.
On that note, in addition to getting more day care services at tournaments, Azarenka wants to work on extending the amount of time that players returning from pregnancy can use their protected ranking (so that they don’t have to rush back to competition), and she would like to see the protected ranking used at more tournaments than a typical injury layoff permits.
“My focus right now is to protect women who want to start a family,” Azarenka said, “because it’s still unusual for women to have a family during their career, especially in tennis.”
In general, maternity policies for pro athletes need to focus on providing care for the parent and child during pregnancy, and providing support and time for the parent during their comeback. This doesn’t mean coddling these athletes — or handing them a competitive advantage. Indeed, the athletes should still have to do the necessary work to get into the physical condition to justify their spot on the roster, earn their place back in the starting lineup, or, as it may be, qualify for a seed in a major tournament.
It’s definitely good that a larger discussion of fair policy governing the seeding for players coming back from maternity leave, has come out of Williams’ experience on the professional tour. But it’s crucial that the conversation doesn’t end there. The correct policies and resources need to be articulated and made available in order to keep pregnancy and child care from being a impenetrable barrier for pro athletes, especially those who aren’t household names.