As we’ve talked about in previous posts, the world of sports can be particularly hostile to female athletes, specifically with regard to pregnancy, parenting and breastfeeding. But two top athletes spoke out this week hopefully signalling a more positive approach to accomodating maternity within sports.
Naomi Osaka, the top-ranked female tennis player in the world, announced that she is expecting her first child (posting an ultrasound on her Instagram, captioned ‘Can’t wait to get back on the court but here’s a little life update for 2023’).
Her announcement was immediately covered by celebrity media as a cheerful celeb-gossip story. Osaka added ‘2023 will be a year that’ll be full of lessons for me and I hope I’ll see you guys at the start of the next one cause I’ll be at Aus 2024 [the Australian Open]’.
Osaka is the highest-earning female athlete worldwide for the last three years. Her public activism in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and candid discussions of her own struggles with depression and anxiety, alongside her remarkable dominance on the court, had given her a public profile only a handful of female athletes have ever achieved, and consequently a financial stability and independence most athletes can only dream of. (In 2022, her on-field earnings of 1.1 million dollars were dwarfed in comparison with the 50 million she made from endorsements and investments.)
When returning to the game, Osaka should benefit from changes brought in by the Women’s Tennis Association to freeze players’ rankings for a period after they give birth. (It took top players such as Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenk losing rankings when returning after pregnancy to highlight this issue.)
But it shouldn’t take being the best-paid female athlete in the world to be able to take some time off to grow, birth and nurse your baby.
Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir is the captain of the Iceland women’s soccer team and has played professionally since 2011. She spoke out last week about challenging her club, Lyon (one of the leading women’s clubs in the world) over not paying her during her pregnancy. With help from the player’s union Fifpro, she took the very first complaint under FIFA’s Maternity Regulations, and the FIFA tribunal ordered the full amount of her salary had to be paid to her.
But while Gunnarsdóttir was ultimately successful in her salary claim, her story reveals a shockingly hostile and obstructive attitude to pregnant and parenting players. From the very beginning, her employer’s attitude meant Gunnarsdóttir’s experience of pregnancy was coloured by stress and fear:
This wasn’t planned, but I knew I was with the person I wanted to start a family with, and I didn’t think for a second that I wouldn’t have my baby. But in the back of your mind, you still feel like you’re guilty of something. Like you’re letting people down.
Her description of informing the rest of the team is telling (the idea that a 32-year-old woman in a heterosexual relationship might become pregnant should not be shocking!):
We were sitting in the locker room, the whole team. The director, staff members, physios, they were all there. And I just said I’d been feeling sick the past few weeks because, ‘Yeah… I’m pregnant.’ It was funny to see their reactions because some of them were so shocked. I think there were a lot of mixed emotions — when a player says she’s pregnant, it’s a special moment, but it also comes with quite a few unknowns. I think once it really sank in, everybody was so happy for me and super excited. But they naturally had a lot of questions because I was the first person in the history of Lyon to get pregnant and with the full intention to come back and play.
‘The first person to get pregnant and with the full intention to come back and play’. (For context, the club was founded in 1970. It can only be assumed that since that time, many female players have either had to cut their careers short upon becoming pregnant or had an abortion in order to save their career.)
Gunnarsdóttir agreed with the club that she would return to Iceland for the rest of her pregnancy and birth, but was adamant about continuing to play:
But I wanted to return to Lyon after giving birth. I was very clear about that. I believed that being the first player ever for Lyon to return from pregnancy would be something we could all celebrate together.
But her paycheques stopped arriving; when the club finally responded to her queries, it said that it would pay her the first two months’ salary, but no more after that, in accordance with French law on sick leave; Gunnarsdóttir argued that the club should be following FIFA’s own maternity regulations. When she pushed back, however, she was told: If Sara goes to FIFA with this, she has no future in Lyon at all.
Despite ongoing silence from the club, Gunnarsdóttir returned to Lyon in January with her partner – and her son Ragnar. Despite being determined to get back to playing and ‘give 110%’, she found that rather than receiving extra support, being a new mother made her vulnerable to worse treatment.
She was told not to bring her (still breastfeeding) baby on away trips because he could disturb the players on the bus or plane. When the club president met Gunnarsdóttir for the first time after she returned to Lyon, he ‘didn’t even greet me, didn’t look at or acknowledge Ragnar.’
Gunnarsóttir ultimately left Lyon.
Her story only has a happy ending (she signed a two-year contract with Juventus in July 2022 and her family is doing well) because of Gunnarsdóttir’s remarkable talent, determination and resistance to bullying tactics.
As ever, it is clear that the sports world’s entrenched sexism and male-centred approach to player performance will not change until determined women force it to. We can hope that top athletes speaking out and demanding change will leade to broader changes so all pregnant and parenting women will be treated fairly and given a chance to continue their careers in sports.