FFL Announces “Coach the Coach” Campaign to End Pregnancy Discrimination in Sports

by Cayce D. Utley

For eighteen years, Feminists for Life has asked colleges and universities to examine their campuses through the eyes of a pregnant or parenting student. FFL found one place in particular where the lack of policies and resources for pregnant students could potentially devastate a woman’s education: the athletic department.


When FFL began its initial outreach to college students, President Serrin Foster asked school administrators to apply a policy called “redshirting” to pregnant athletes. Redshirting, a common practice in college athletics, allows a student athlete to take a medical leave of absence from participating in a sport while retaining both her scholarship and athletic eligibility. “Administrators or coaches weren’t resistant. They just hadn’t thought of this solution before,” Foster recalls. “But we were going to one school at a time. There is coach turnover in the athletic department. Women were learning the hard way that ad hoc decisions weren’t a real solution. We needed the policies to come from a higher authority.”


In late Spring 2007, ESPN aired a special program, Outside the Lines: Pregnant Pause, featuring the stories of several women who were compelled to have abortions because their athletic departments’ policies on pregnancy were misleading or, in some cases, nonexistent. A student athlete from Clemson University who asked not to be identified told ESPN that she was asked to sign a team document prior to the 2005 season stating that “Pregnancy resulting in the inability to compete and positively contribute to the program’s success will result in the modification of your grant-in-aid money.” Said this student, “There was actually a policy about loss of scholarship, loss of privileges due to pregnancy.” She added that her fear of losing her scholarship played a large role in her decision to have a second abortion.


Fortunately, Clemson University responded to public pressure and not only changed their pregnancy policy, but also began educating student athletes on the new policy, assuring them that their scholarships would not be jeopardized if they became pregnant.


The summer after ESPN aired its documentary, the NCAA convened and discussed creating a path for a conference-wide model policy. Elizabeth Sorenson, at that time a professor of nursing at Wright State University (WSU) who had written the school’s pregnancy policy, began working with the NCAA on its new policy. Sorenson expressed the prevalence of the problem to ESPN: “If we talk to athletics administrators, directors of athletics, some of them say they don’t need a policy because they don’t have this problem, so there’s sort of a head-in-the-sand philosophy.”


Sorenson, who now works at Ohio Northern University, agitated for the policy change at the NCAA: “I showed them the federal law, the health arguments, and why it was unsafe for both the athletes and the baby. I was as visual and verbal as possible.” Sorenson became one of the coauthors of the NCAA’s model policy that was rolled out in 2008. She told WSU’s campus newspaper, The Guardian, “The [NCAA] policy creates a healthy, safer situation for the athlete and the child.”


As these events unfolded, Feminists for Life presented its 2008 study Perception is Reality on Capitol Hill, calling attention to the issue of athletic policies for pregnant women and parents. In Perception is Reality, FFL found that most of its survey respondents were unable to find any written policy that would protect student athletes in the event of a pregnancy. Foster added, “Perception confirmed to us what we already knew—no one on campus was addressing this issue and making a policy that would be clear and beneficial to the students. We are encouraged that the NCAA has taken the lead, but school administrators, athletic departments, and students still need to be educated about these policies if we’re going to avoid more tragedies like those ESPN exposed.”


While the NCAA policy is a step forward, more work remains. The current policy addresses the issue of pregnancy, but not parenting students. Nor does the pregnancy policy mention the role of fathers or the impact pregnancy can have on their participation in athletics. “In my opinion it’s discriminatory. Federal law says that any institution cannot discriminate due to pregnancy or parenting,” said Sorensen.


The NCAA website says that students have to maintain good “academic standing” in order to retain their scholarship during pregnancy, but that language is ambiguous and does not clearly define “academic standing” in a way that would include a potential adjustment in course load, something many pregnant students choose to do in order to accommodate pregnancy, delivery, or postpartum recovery.


The NCAA site also includes a decision-making flowchart to help athletic departments walk pregnant students through their choices about pregnancy. Yet this chart makes no mention of adoption options and does not account for complications during or after pregnancy or abortion. There is no discussion of postpartum or post-abortion care.


“We’re optimistic that there is a movement towards ending bad practices, but FFL advocacy and educational efforts to ‘coach coaches’ about woman-centered, family-friendly policies must remain a priority,” said Foster. “Feminists for Life is calling on student groups to help educate administrators and members of athletic departments and urges parents and alumnae to check policies are in place at their universities and colleges.”


No Policy is Bad Practice

In a training slideshow educating its member schools, the NCAA paints a grim picture:

Survey of Pregnancy Policies in Athletics Departments (n = 85)

No policy

Division I 85%

Division II 94%

Division III 98%

Existing policies vary widely, and many are not in compliance with federal pregnancy discrimination laws.


Editor’s note: Anyone who would like to express encouragement to the NCAA for the support of pregnant and parenting students should write to Karen Morrison, Director, Gender Inclusion Initiative at the NCAA. Please copy Feminists for Life if you correspond with the NCAA on this issue.

Pro-woman, pro-life student groups are also encouraged to participate in educating administrators and members of their university athletic departments. Contact coordinator@ffloncampus.org for more information about FFL’s “Coach the Coach” Campaign to end discriminatory practices against pregnant women, birthparents, and student parents.