It's 2023. Why do pregnant athletes still face discrimination in sports?

There has been a recent string of high-profile cases where pregnant athletes faced discrimination.

Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir, the longtime Icelandic national team star, made public this month in The Players’ Tribune 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 got pregnant. Working with FIFPRO, the world representative body for international footballers, she lodged a complaint against the club — and FIFA ruled in her favor in a landmark decision for parental rights.

“This story is bigger than me,” Gunnarsdóttir wrote on Twitter. “It’s a wakeup 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.”

One week later, WNBA star Dearica Hamby said on Instagram 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 her pregnancy during the team’s championship parade.

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Dearica Hamby dribbles up the court during a May 6, 2022 game with the Las Vegas Aces. The two-time WNBA All-Star was traded to the Los Angeles Sparks on Jan. 21, 2023.
Dearica Hamby dribbles up the court during a May 6, 2022 game with the Las Vegas Aces. The two-time WNBA All-Star was traded to the Los Angeles Sparks on Jan. 21, 2023.

"The unprofessional and unethical way that 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 leaves me sick to my stomach. We fought for provisions that would finally support and protect player parents. This cannot now be used against me."

That same day, the WNBPA released a statement saying the league will investigate the Aces’ conduct.

Both examples remind us of an ugly truth: Even if women are celebrated for motherhood in the public eye, the battles they face behind the scenes, especially at work, often go unnoticed. While Hamby was making headlines in September for revealing she was pregnant during the finals, behind the scenes she was about to face an ugly battle with her longtime club.

Though things have changed, more needs to be done to protect players’ rights during parenthood. And it’s usually the athletes leading this charge — like Alysia Montaño, an Olympic medalist and six-time USA Outdoor Track champion who co-founded &Mother, an advocacy group that focuses on removing systemic barriers for mothers in sports.

Montaño in 2016 faced her own setback, 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 need to really make sure that these are not battles that women or mothers are fighting alone,” Montaño told The 19th. “These are best rectified if we can put them in writing — in policy where it’s known that, ‘Hey, we don’t have to fight for this. These are our rights.’”

Alysia Montano holds her daughter Linnea Montano after running in a women's 800m heat during the 2017 U.S. Championships while four months pregnant.
Alysia Montano holds her daughter Linnea Montano after running in a women's 800m heat during the 2017 U.S. Championships while four months pregnant.

That’s 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’s also a list of frequently asked questions for athletes who may be going through pregnancy, and ways for organizations to best support and accommodate athletes who are parents.

But it doesn’t stop there. There are resources for breastfeeding, perinatal physical stability and recovery, paid family leave, facts on workers’ rights and much more.

Not that long ago, I wrote a column celebrating the fact that mothers and parents were becoming more visible in professional sports. I also wrote how reproductive rights are critical in offering athletes the ability to have control of their careers. This column is a reminder that this current generation of athletes is far less inclined to sit on the sideline and accept this kind of discrimination.

Gunnarsdóttir’s story has a relatively happy ending. She, her partner and their baby are healthy. She is playing for a new club — Juventus FC in Italy. She was paid what she was owed by Lyon.

But, let’s not forget it took a ruling in the FIFA tribunal to get here.

There’s a part of Gunnarsdóttir’s story that stands out. After the club was ordered to pay her unpaid salaries, the club requested the grounds for FIFA's decision. In her essay, Gunnarsdóttir points out this may have been the first step toward an appeal. Here's how FIFA arrived at its conclusion, as Gunnarsdóttir explained it.

“They talked about the ‘duty of care’ of the club, that there was no contact with me during my pregnancy,” she wrote. “No one was really checking on me, following up, seeing how I was doing mentally and physically, both as an employee, but also as a human being. Basically, they had a responsibility to look after me, and they didn’t.”

In other words, the club failed to do the bare minimum.

The case involving Hamby is still pending. Hamby has not yet announced the birth of her second child, and, with her Instagram post, shared a photo of herself still pregnant. In the post, she paints a vivid picture of how the club treated her. She alleged the team accused her of signing an extension while knowingly pregnant, and then accosted her for failing to do more to prevent her 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 for another landmark ruling — or the chance to set us back.

This article originally appeared on Why do pregnant athletes still face discrimination in sports in 2023?