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Serena Williams’ French Open ordeal proves maternity rights in pro sports have a long way to go

Friday, July 6th, 2018

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.

About the Author: Lindsay Gibbs is a sports reporter at ThinkProgress.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on July 5, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

NFL Players Association Responds to Attacks on Free Speech

Tuesday, September 26th, 2017

After President Donald Trump and others attacked the free speech rights of athletes, the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) responded to the president’s comments.

NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith said:

The peaceful demonstrations by some of our players have generated a wide array of responses. Those opinions are protected speech and a freedom that has been paid for by the sacrifice of men and women throughout history. This expression of speech has generated thoughtful discussions in our locker rooms and in board rooms. However, the line that marks the balance between the rights of every citizen in our great country gets crossed when someone is told to just “shut up and play.”

NFL players do incredible things to contribute to their communities. NFL players are a part of a legacy of athletes in all sports who throughout history chose to be informed about the issues that impact them and their communities. They chose—and still choose today—to do something about those issues rather than comfortably living in the bubble of sports. Their decision is no different from the one made by countless others who refused to let “what they do” define or restrict “who they are” as Americans.

No man or woman should ever have to choose a job that forces them to surrender their rights. No worker nor any athlete, professional or not, should be forced to become less than human when it comes to protecting their basic health and safety. We understand that our job as a union is not to win a popularity contest and it comes with a duty to protect the rights of our members. For that we make no apologies and never will.

NFLPA President Eric Winston said:

Our players are men who are great philanthropists, activists and community leaders who stand up for each other and what they believe in.

I am extremely disappointed in the statements made by the President last night. The comments were a slap in the face to the civil rights heroes of the past and present, soldiers who have spilled blood in countless wars to uphold the values of this great nation and American people of all races, ethnicities, genders and sexual orientations who seek civil progress as a means to make this country, and this world, a better place.

The divisiveness we are experiencing in this country has created gridlock in our political system, given voice to extreme, fringe beliefs and paralyzed our progress as a nation. Divisiveness breeds divisiveness, but NFL players have proven to unify people in our country’s toughest moments and we will continue to do so now.

We will not stop challenging others on how we can all come together to continue to make America the greatest country on earth.

This blog was originally published at AFL-CIO on September 26, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist. Before joining the AFL-CIO in 2012, he worked as labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars.

California Moves To Pay Professional Cheerleaders Minimum Wage

Wednesday, July 8th, 2015

katelyn harropThanks to what is believed to be first of its kind legislation, legal minimum wages and worker protections may be on the horizon for California’s professional cheerleaders.

A bill proposed by State Rep. Lorena Gonzalez (D) in January, and approved by the Senate on Monday, requires California sports teams to adhere to state and federal minimum wage requirements and to provide overtime pay and sick leave to professional cheerleaders.

Despite the athletic skill and training required for participation in professional-level cheering — plus the branding and visual expectations that come along with acting as the public face of a sports team — cheerleaders are often considered independent contractors and therefore are not protected by minimum wage and other labor standards.

This is particularly jarring considering professional cheerleaders act as some of the most public symbols for leagues like the NFL, which is worth over $33 billion, according to recent estimates.

“A.B. 202 would explicitly require that professional sports teams provide cheerleaders with the same rights and benefits as other employees, protecting against the sort of financial and personal abuses that have been reported throughout the country,” said Gonzalez, who is a former college cheerleader herself, in an April press release. “A.B. 202 simply demands that any professional sports team — or their chosen contractor — treat the women on the field with the same dignity and respect that we treat the guy selling beer.”

A similar bill has been proposed in New York State, but Gonzalez’s will be the first to hit a governor’s desk. Both measures come as a response to a string of lawsuits brought against NFL teams over the last two years. The first suit was brought by a former Oakland Raiders cheerleader who claims that she and other members of the cheer team were paid less than $5.00 an hour and were denied overtime and other benefits associated with standard labor laws.

In bringing the lawsuit against the Raiders, attorney Sharon Vinik dismissed the team’s justification for the contractor status of the cheer squad, stating that the NFL team dictated the choreography and music used by the cheerleaders among other strict limitations. The defense also rejected the common claim that the opportunity to cheer for a professional team opened up other doors such as endorsements and modeling, and therefore acted as a career stepping stone.

“If you are a young starting quarterback, you get lot of notoriety for that, but you also get paid for that work,” said Vinik at the time. “The fact that the women might get some opportunities doesn’t justify not paying them.”

According to the Associated Press, Vinik thinks the new California legislation is a good step, but one that may not be big enough to actually change the payment culture surrounding professional cheerleading.

The Raiderette’s lawsuit was followed by similar legal complaints from other teams, including cheerleaders from the Buffalo Jills cheer squad, who claim that they were not paid for up to 20 hours of their weekly work with the Buffalo-based NFL team.

While the new California legislation may be a step in the right direction, the vast majority of professional sports teams and states have yet to address the significant wage gap and labor violations associated with the professional cheerleading industry.

This blog was originally posted on July 1, 2015 on Think Progress. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author’s name is Katelyn Harrop. Katelyn Harrop is a summer intern at ThinkProgress. She is a rising senior at Ithaca College, where she is pursuing a B.A. in journalism and a minor in international politics. Katelyn is an editor for Buzzsaw Magazine, Ithaca College’s independent, student-run publication, and a staff writer for the community radio station in Ithaca, New York. Katelyn is originally from McMinnville, Oregon.

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