This one's for all the moms
🎾 Queen Serena
When it comes to moms who’ve changed the game, we have to start with the aforementioned tennis legend Serena Williams. After winning the 2017 Australian Open while eight weeks pregnant, Serena faced life-threatening health complications soon after the birth of her daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian, Jr., in September 2017.
- Serena, who has a history of blood clots, vulnerably discussed her emergency C-section and postpartum depression just months later. Since then, she’s shed much-needed light on the startling disparities Black women face in medical care.
Williams also led the way for moms on the court. Prior to taking maternity leave in April 2017, she was ranked No. 1 in the world. But upon returning to competition in early 2018, the WTA ranked Williams No. 453. Sorry, but WTF?
- Luckily, Serena called out the absurd situation and prompted change. Now, if a player (like the also-expecting Naomi Osaka) takes a leave of absence due to pregnancy, injury, or illness, their most recent ranking freezes and can be used to gain entry into tournaments upon return.
And that’s not even mentioning Serena’s other jobs. Take, for example, her partnership with Nike, which is so influential that the brand named the largest office building on its Oregon campus after her. The Serena Williams Building is one million square feet — maybe big enough to house all her trophies.
- Also, her venture capital firm — Serena Ventures — raised $111 million in its first fund in March 2022, bolstering its vision of investing in women and BIPOC founders. Whatever Serena Williams does, it’s an ace.
👟 One step forward…another three steps forward
Allyson Felix — the most decorated U.S. track athlete in Olympic history — took her final victory lap last July. Just months before, Felix announced her impending retirement, declaring, “This season I’m running for women. I’m running for a better future for my daughter. I’m running for you.” *wipes tear*
As powerful as Felix’s words are, they’re also not surprising given her trackrecord. Back in 2019, Felix spoke out against how then-sponsor Nike planned to reduce her salary by a whopping 70% during her pregnancy. Thanks to her activism, Nike eventually changed its tune and enacted a new maternity policy that same year.
- Like Serena, Felix advocates on behalf of Black mothers, even testifying before U.S. Congress in May 2019 on the health and mortality crisis that disproportionately affects Black women.
And, just like her signature kick, Felix has only picked up speed. After leaving Nike, she partnered with new sponsor Athleta and the nonprofit &Mother to provide free childcare to athletes and their support staff at last summer’s USA Track & Field Championships. The trio also established $10K grants to help alleviate related expenses for athlete-moms.
- Plus, last spring, Felix’s own shoe brand, Saysh, implemented a maternity return policy that offers a new pair for free to customers whose shoe sizes change due to pregnancy. It’s in the details.
⚽ The soccer moms
There are a whole host of badass women who have redefined what it means to be a “soccer mom.” From Angel City FC striker Sydney Leroux and NJ/NY Gotham FC power couple Ashlyn Harris and Ali Krieger in the NWSL to USWNT stars Alex Morgan, Crystal Dunn, and Julie Ertz, these moms know how to juggle.
- Between winning a world-changing equal pay battle and hoisting World Cup hardware, these women have helped change the motherhood (and fatherhood!) game.
The NWSL Players Association added to their “maternity rights” win column after ratifying the league’s first-ever collective bargaining agreement (CBA) in February 2022. Before the CBA, the league had “no maternity leave worked into the current compensation guidelines,” instead handling matters on a case-by-case basis.
- But thanks to the NWSLPA’s determination, the CBA now guarantees players eight weeks of fully paid parental leave, whether for birth or adoption.
- Meanwhile, across the pond, England’s Football Association and Professional Footballers’ Association reached a landmark agreement that vastly improved maternity rights for Women’s Super League and Championship players.
Individual clubs and their sponsors are also jumping in: Starting with Racing Louisville FC, NWSL teams like the Portland Thorns FC, the Chicago Red Stars, and, just last week, NJ/NY Gotham FC, have all inked fertility partners to aid their athletes in the education and healthcare of fertility and family planning. More kiddos in “mom” kits? Yes, please.
👏 Who’s led the charge
Just like the NWSL players and teams have proven, the fight for maternal protection requires structural support — and two other organizations in particular understand that essential assignment.
🏀 WNBA: The W leads the way (of course) when it comes to maternity leave, but even their progress is fairly recent. Storytime: In 2018, WNBA star Skylar Diggins-Smith played while pregnantwith her son, Seven, and “didn’t tell a soul.”And she didn’t just play: Diggins-Smith averaged 17.9 points per game and was named an All-Star. What can’t moms do?
- Part of the reason Diggins-Smith kept her pregnancy a secret is that under the WNBA’s old CBA, players were only guaranteed half of their (already small) salary on mat leave.
- Luckily, the league made CBA history in 2020, adding fully paid maternity leave, guaranteed two-bedroom apartments for athlete-moms, and a $5K annual child care stipend. Talk about an upgrade for Diggins-Smith and her second baby bump.
⛳ LPGA: Prior to 2019, any player who left the tour for maternity leave could not play more than 10 events during their leave year. But, because women can make their own decisions (a novel concept!), players who have taken leave are now allowed to compete in an unlimited number of tourneys.
- Stacy Lewis and her sponsor KPMG deserve an extra round of applause, too. When Lewis announced her pregnancy in 2018, KPMG stepped up to pay the full value of her contract, regardless of the number of events she competed in. More of this.
💪 Future fights
On one hand, it’s downright energizing to see all the progress that’s been made. Who knew a CBA could be so thrilling?
But there’s still a long way to go to achieve gender equity in sports, and maternity rights need to be part of the conversation. Athletes should not feel like they need to put their career “on hold” to become a mother nor be punished for choosing to become a parent.
- One athlete who faced such punishment was Iceland midfielder Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir. After becoming pregnant, her former club, Lyon, failed to pay her salary or uphold their “duty of care” responsibilities. She sued and won in May 2022.
Other than holding organizations accountable, sporting bodies must also address the unique needs of current and future athlete-moms in the U.S. After the historic and devastating fall of Roe v. Wade last June, it’s not just healthcare and fertility partners that athletes need — it’s ensured access to full reproductive rights.
- Given the ever-changing patchwork of state laws, the next best way to celebrate mothers in sports may simply be for teams and leagues to provide athletes clear paths to all the medical (and unfortunately, legal) support they may need regarding reproductive care.
In the words of legendary sports journalist Holly Rowe, “let’s normalize working mothers,” including athlete mothers. And let’s make sure their leagues, sponsors, and fans support them and fight for their full equity and autonomy along the way.