The past decade has seen remarkable progress in protections for pregnant athletes. In 2020, FIFA and the Women’s National Basketball League (WNBA) introduced mandatory paid maternity leave. The Premier Hockey Federation (PHF) also has paid maternity leave and maintains that no player can be released from their team due to pregnancy.
These protections, however, are not enough. Many players who get pregnant see their lives and careers permanently altered by mistreatment from both teams and sponsors alike.
Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir, a former midfielder on the Olympique Lyonnais’s women’s team (Lyon), wrote a piece for The Players’ Tribune outlining the mistreatment she faced from the French club throughout her pregnancy. The club purposely withheld her salary and did not provide her with any form of support.
Gunnarsdóttir sued Lyon through the Fédération Internationale des Associations des Footballeurs Professionnels . Despite winning the lawsuit and having the club pay her lost salary in full, the move illustrated that even when the necessary rules and regulations are in place, players are still forced to fight for financial security.
Gunnarsdótir’s mistreatment is, unfortunately, not an isolated incident. Athletes who become pregnant are regularly cast aside and treated like pariahs by their clubs and sponsors, who act as though pregnancy marks the end of an athlete’s career.
Track athletes Allyson Felix and Alysia Montaño both wrote essays for The New York Times exploring the mistreatment they dealt with at the hands of one of their sponsors, Nike, when the company learned of their respective pregnancies. For Felix, they proposed a 70 per cent pay cut when renegotiating her contract, while Nike elected to put Montaño’s contract on hold entirely.
With salaries for women athletes often being unsustainable, sponsorships are vital to their ability to compete at the professional level. The treatment Felix and Montaño endured at the hands of Nike reflects the sports world’s hypocrisy towards pregnant women. Pregnant athletes are celebrated in public as superheroes by clubs and sponsors but treated as disposable behind the scenes.
In 2021, Nike released an advertisement celebrating the toughest athletes of all: Mothers. The ad depicted various pregnant people doing physical activity and branding them as the epitome of athleticism. The company gets to directly profit off the promotion of pregnant athletes while simultaneously offering dehumanizing pay cuts to the pregnant athletes they sponsor.
The insincerity of clubs and sponsors directly impairs the physical and mental health of athletes who are expecting. Often, a sponsorship renewal is dangled in front of pregnant athletes on the condition that they get back to their pre-pregnancy fitness level as soon as possible.
The precarity brought about by the stigmatization of pregnancy within sports is not only career-threatening—it can be life-threatening as well. Kara Goucher, an American long-distance runner and Olympic silver-medallist, exposed herself to severe health risks due to over-exercising after her high-risk pregnancy because Nike told her they could renew her contract if they saw satisfactory results from her during races.
As seen in the case of Gunnarsdótir, even when regulations exist to protect athletes, clubs will still try to take advantage of them. Pregnant athletes cannot risk exposing themselves to long-term physical or mental health problems for the sake of abusive clubs and sponsors. Not only does this affect the trajectory and health of their pregnancy, but it can also create long-lasting problems for their future athletic careers.
If clubs and sponsors want to see athletes in their greatest physical shape after pregnancy, they need to start taking care of them during those nine months. Rather than piling on undue emotional stress, athletes should be provided with a variety of resources and support by their clubs and sponsors, who have a duty of care toward them. Athletes are human beings who deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, not simply toys that can be thrown away if they are not deemed bankable.