Jan 29, 2015
Probing Pregnancy Participation Policies

By Laura Ulrich

Throughout the 2006-07 season, Fantasia Goodwin started every game for the Syracuse University women’s basketball team. However, during the team’s final game on Feb. 25, the six-foot guard watched from the bench. The reason: The night before, Goodwin had told Head Coach Quentin Hillsman that she was pregnant–and that she had been playing that way for many months. Goodwin sat out the last game, gave birth to a daughter eight weeks later, and then announced she intends to return to classes and to the team this fall.

Goodwin captured media attention because she concealed her pregnancy for so long and continued playing. But her decision to avoid telling her coach about her pregnancy is far from unique, and anecdotal evidence suggests that variations on her story take place on college campuses more often than one might think.

Building on media coverage of Goodwin’s situation, the issue of student-athlete pregnancy again took center stage recently when ESPN explored the subject on its television program “Outside the Lines.” The show’s reporting focused on the experience of an anonymous Clemson University track and field athlete who says she became pregnant twice while on an athletic scholarship–and that she opted to terminate both pregnancies because she feared losing her scholarship.

That fear appears to be founded: Until last year, Clemson admits, track and field athletes were forced to sign a statement that said they understood their grant-in-aid would be “modified” if they became pregnant, and according to the ESPN story, at least seven current or recently graduated Clemson athletes terminated their pregnancies.

Clemson Athletic Director Terry Don Phillips quickly went on record condemning much of the “Outside the Lines” story as misleading, but he acknowledges that the policy, written by the track coach, did exist and that athletes had to sign it. The policy has since been revoked.

However, what’s perhaps more remarkable than the negative spirit of the Clemson track team’s policy is the fact that there was a written policy at all. Elizabeth Sorensen, a professor at Wright State University who has been working since 2003 to raise awareness about pregnancy and college athletes, told ESPN that only 53 college athletic departments around the country have written policies on the issue.

Without policies in place, the question of what becomes of a pregnant athlete’s scholarship is left wide open, and Sorensen says that can push an athlete into making a choice that isn’t the best for her or her university, like failing to alert her coach of her condition.

“If we have a situation where we’re asking or requiring an athlete to step forward and say she’s pregnant, but it’s going to result in her scholarship getting yanked, then of course nobody’s going to step forward because they stand to lose everything,” Sorensen told Syracuse’s Daily Orange.

The solution, according to Sorensen, is a comprehensive written policy at every university that protects pregnant athletes’ scholarships and specifies that pregnancy will be treated no differently than any other temporary medical condition. Sorensen has helped Wright State to implement such a policy, and the school now devotes an entire section of the student-athlete handbook to the topic. Sorensen continues to work with the NCAA on the issue, urging the association to provide more guidance and to perhaps create a model policy schools can use.

Written policies could help protect colleges and universities from violating the law.

“The regulations say very clearly that institutions cannot discriminate against students on the basis of pregnancy,” Deborah Brake, Associate Professor of Law at the University of Pittsburgh, told ESPN. “It’s unquestionably a violation of Title IX.”

In addition to scholarship questions, policies on pregnancy also need to address the athlete’s continued participation with her team. The Wright State policy creates a decision-making team to address the question of how long and in what capacity an athlete is allowed to participate, taking into account the sport she plays and other individual considerations. Sorensen stresses the importance of tailoring participation decisions to the individual athlete, since the physical demands and risks of different sport vary widely.

Athletic departments creating participation guidelines for pregnant athletes face an obstacle, however–little data exists on what is and isn’t safe for elite or competitive athletes when they’re pregnant, and the “30 minutes a day of moderate exercise” guidelines that exist for typical women aren’t all that helpful.

However, in recent years there has been a general loosening of restrictions on athletic participation during pregnancy, and most obstetricians agree that more exercise is probably safer than previously thought. In 2004, Training & Conditioning polled leading obstetricians on their best advice, and learned the following:

• During the first three to four months of gestation, it’s considered safe for the athlete to practice and participate alongside her team, even in contact sports. “During the first trimester, the fetus is very tiny and well protected by the bones of the mother’s pelvis,” Mona Shangold, MD, Director of the Center for Women’s Health and Sports Gynecology in Philadelphia, told T&C.

After 16 to 20 weeks of gestation, athletes–particularly in contact sports–should stop competing. At that point, “sports with a risk of blunt abdominal trauma should be avoided,” according to James Clapp, MD, Professor of Reproductive Biology at Case Western Reserve University and a leading researcher on the topic.

• Physicians have abandoned an older heart rate limit of 140 beats per minute, but caution that pregnant athletes should limit the intensity of their workouts to “moderately hard.”

• Avoiding overheating is important. Some research shows a correlation between mothers’ elevated core temperature and birth defects. Precautions include exercising in a cool environment, wearing the right clothing, and hydrating.

• Cooldown is critical. A pregnant athlete who stops exercising suddenly risks a sudden drop in blood flow to her uterus, and thus to her fetus.

• Pregnant athletes should not exercise lying on their backs. The added pressure of the uterus compromises the inferior vena cava, and important blood vessel.

Most important, according to sports medicine staff members who have worked with pregnant athletes, is to urge the athlete to listen to her body and make changes to her workout when her body tells her she needs to.

“The athlete’s body is very scientific,” Jodi Hopkins, a strength and conditioning coach who worked with WNBA basketball player Teana Miller when she was pregnant, told T&C. “Encourage her to stay in tune with its signals and she’ll know when it’s time to stop doing something.”

What was Goodwin’s body telling her as she competed throughout most of her pregnancy? It’s impossible to know, but if more schools take Sorensen’s advice and put policies into place, perhaps athletes in her position in the future will be better able to listen to their bodies rather than their fears.

Laura Ulrich is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning.

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