The United States has been slowly progressing towards equity when it comes to employment policies that outlaw gender, disability, and other types of discrimination. Despite this advancement, there are a few areas that have shown reluctance to moving forward. One such industry is that of professional sports. As a result of the nature of sports related occupations, issues such as disability, gender, and pregnancy discrimination have proven difficult to overcome. Athletes who are considering starting a family must contemplate the reactions of their sponsors, fans, and coaches, and they fear the cancelling of sponsorships as well as receiving less playing time from their coaches. Fortunately, a recent situation arose in women’s professional tennis that forced the United States Tennis Association to quickly consider changes to pregnancy and discrimination policies.
Arguably the greatest female tennis player in history, Serena Williams has won twenty-three Grand Slam singles titles since 1999, as well as four Olympic gold medals and seventy-two total career singles titles. Williams recently took a leave of absence from competing as she became pregnant and gave birth to her child, Olympia, in September of 2017. She also unfortunately experienced severe complications from this pregnancy that added to the physical strain of giving birth. Despite her record-breaking athletic history, she returned from pregnancy leave to find that she was unseeded in the French Open this year. In professional tennis, seeds are awarded to the highest ranked players of the year, and unseeded players encounter additional obstacles in the tournament, such as facing highly competitive players very early on in the tournament. For such a successful and powerful athlete as Williams, not being awarded a seeded spot following her pregnancy was not only disrespectful, but also viewed as discriminatory.
As a result of the backlash that the actions of the French Open have received, the United States Tennis Association (USTA) has announced that they plan to alter their seeding procedure in order to take into account additional factors that may have influenced an athlete’s ranking, which will include pregnancy and the complications that arise from the condition. Wimbledon already reserves and occasionally exercises the right to alter computer calculated seeding if they feel there are additional factors (such as pregnancy) that should be taken into consideration. In support of Wimbledon’s practice, the President and Chairwoman of USTA, Katrina Adams, explained that players should not be penalized for exercising their rights to start a family, and that the new US Open policy will help the sport to achieve greater equality and strike down discriminatory practices. Adams compared the French Open’s actions to the business environment, stating that forcing a player to return from maternity leave to a lower ranked position would be the same as having a business executive return to an entry level position. If this happened in any company in the United States, the employer would be guilty of pregnancy discrimination. Why is this not the case with the Women’s Tennis Association?
This case is intriguing in that it deviates from the typical methods by which industries outlaw pregnancy discrimination. In the state of New Jersey, pregnancy leave policies are drawn from the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, which prohibits discrimination against individuals on the basis of disability, gender, pregnancy and other protected classes. If a company policy allows for medical leave and other accommodations for disabled employees, it is to extend those accommodations to pregnant women as well. When it comes to professional sports, however, disability discrimination and accommodation do not have a role because of the nature of the industry. Therefore, pregnancy leave must be mandated through a different process. Grand Slam rules allow individual tournaments to determine how they will rank competitors, so international tournaments such as Wimbledon and the U.S. Open can choose to allow for pregnancy accommodation in their ranking process and must begin to make these changes on an individual basis.
In addition to other obstacles, protecting maternity leave for professional athletes has the potential to upset the players themselves. Allowing a player who had been on leave to be seeded in an annual tournament unavoidably causes other players to lose their coveted seeds that they have worked hard to achieve. Though these types of changes will likely upset players and fans alike, they will serve to create a level playing field for women who choose to start a family, which is a goal that carries more weight than just one tournament or seed. Almost every other industry in the United States is required to provide protected maternity leave for pregnant employees, and professional athletes should not be exempt from this requirement. Until these changes are made, gender and pregnancy discrimination will continue to plague the sports industry.