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How Athletes Unlimited’s ‘blank slate’ approach to pregnancy policy is changing the game for moms

Katie Carter and daughter Noelia (Courtesy of Athletes Unlimited)

To Katie Carter, it was almost like an unspoken rule. When she decided to start a family and become pregnant with her first child, she figured that’s when her professional volleyball career would end.

She knew women who continued to play while pregnant out of fear of losing their contracts. And for women’s volleyball players, the only professional opportunities for many years were overseas, where they were often separated from family and friends and didn’t speak the language.

“It’s like, ‘OK, she’s pregnant. She’s hiding it from everyone. We all know. What if something went wrong? We’re in a foreign country and what if something happened and she needed help?” Carter said, recalling one specific experience with a teammate in Azerbaijan.

“I know if it were me, I would be so scared. I would leave. I would not want to risk my pregnancy.”

So, when Carter signed with Athletes Unlimited in 2020 to participate in its inaugural volleyball season this past February, she was stunned to learn of the pregnancy policy they were negotiating. The AU players and executives weren’t just having a conversation about normalizing working mothers in sports; they were taking unprecedented steps to make mothers (and soon-to-be mothers) feel emotionally and financially supported.

With AU, Carter, whose daughter Noelia would soon be 1 year old, would no longer have to choose between her career and her child.

“Knowing that people are going to support you and not put a checkmark by your name like, ‘Oh my, but she had a kid,’” Carter said. “That’s what the norm is in other countries… so, it’s really motivating. And I’m just so gosh darn grateful that people are talking about it.”

Developing a pregnancy policy was on the minds of AU co-founders Jon Patricof and Jonathan Soros even before they announced the athlete-driven venture last March. In February, they called Cynthia Calvert, an expert on managing pregnancy and parenting in the workplace, to lead their efforts.

Right away, Calvert could tell this opportunity was different than others she’s been approached about as principal of Workforce 21C, which consults other companies on creating inclusive workplace environments.

“When people contact me, it’s to see, ‘What’s the least we can do? How can we avoid any disruption caused by pregnancy or parenting?’ And I find that very disheartening,” she said. “(AU) was looking at the big picture and saying, ‘What do our players need? How do we get it for them?’ And so it was an opportunity to write on a blank slate.”

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(Athletes Unlimited)

Calvert was aware of the history of pregnancy discrimination in sports and of the recent examples of athletes speaking out about their experiences.

In 2019, Skylar Diggins-Smith revealed she had played the entire 2018 season with the Dallas Wings while pregnant and sat out the following season while dealing with postpartum depression. She became one of the WNBA’s leading voices in advocating for more resources for its mothers, an issue that was addressed in the latest CBA. In March, Allyson Felix called a new Nike ad celebrating mothers in sports “hard to watch” after the company tried to cut her pay during contract renewal negotiations following the birth of her daughter. Nike has since implemented a new maternity policy for sponsored athletes.

Most recently, the NCAA came under fire for making it so children counted against the 34-member travel party limit for each team participating in the NCAA Basketball Tournament, putting coaches with young children in a difficult position.

While these incidents were fresh in Calvert’s mind, she didn’t want what other leagues and organizations were doing to influence her decision-making early in the process. She hoped the AU policy would serve as an example of what’s possible when you put the athletes first.

“There’s no one right way to be pregnant. There’s no one right way to have a family. There’s no one right way to be an athlete,” Calvert said. “And you need to be able to give people the freedom to combine things the way that they see fit because that’s where you’re going to get your best performance, your greatest loyalty. It helps everybody.”

Among the notable provisions in AU’s policy, which were reached in consultation with the Player Executive Committee and will be written into all athletes’ contracts:

  • Players can decide whether or not they want to notify the league or team doctor about a pregnancy.
  • Players can take as much time off as they need with full pay to give birth or for a pregnancy-related condition.
  • Parental leave is also available to players whose spouse or partner gives birth or adopts a child.
  • Pregnancy will have no effect on a player’s ability to sign future contracts.
  • Accommodations such as private lactation rooms will be required at all competition sites.

For Carter, the financial security the policy afforded her was something she never thought possible in her profession. During AU’s volleyball season in Dallas from Feb. 27 to March 29, the league covered 100 percent of the childcare costs. That meant Carter could have a babysitter watch Noelia during the days, relieving some of the stress of balancing competition and childcare. The same will be true for the athletes participating in AU’s upcoming lacrosse and softball seasons.

Stories like Carter’s only reinforce AU’s commitment to supporting its mothers and being a leading advocate for women in the workplace.

“If we’re still an organization that’s early in its development that doesn’t have the resources necessarily of some of the larger organizations,” Patricof said, “and we’ve been able to find a way to do it, I think that’s encouraging to all organizations that there is a path.”

USA Women’s Basketball Releases Olympic Roster, Explains Clark’s Omission

USA Women's Basketball's Diana Taurasi #12, Brittney Griner #15 and Sabrina Ionescu #6 at April's National Team Training Camp
All the players tapped for this year's Olympic roster have senior national team experience. (Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)

USA Women's Basketball announced its official Olympic roster on Tuesday, with officials noting that Caitlin Clark’s lack of national team experience played a key role in her omission.

Selection committee chair Jen Rizzotti said that the committee evaluated players according to a set of on-court criteria they were given.

"When you base your decision on criteria, there were other players that were harder to cut because they checked a lot more boxes," she told reporters on Tuesday. "Then sometimes it comes down to position, style of play for [coach Cheryl Reeve] and then sometimes a vote."

Three first-time Olympians made the squad: Alyssa Thomas, Sabrina Ionescu, and Kahleah Copper. Additionally, Jackie Young and Kelsey Plum will make the switch to the national 5-on-5 team after winning gold in the inaugural 3×3 competition at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. 

Age, Rizzotti said, was "never brought up" in player selection discussions. It’s the first time in Olympic history that a USA Women’s Basketball 5-on-5 team will travel to the Games without a single player under 26 years old.

Rizzotti commented that all the players tapped for this year's Olympic roster have senior national team experience, something that Clark does not have.

"She's certainly going to continue to get better and better," USA Basketball CEO Jim Tooley added. "Really hope that she's a big part of our future going forward."

Rizzotti said it would have been "irresponsible" to base roster decisions on anything outside of a basketball context. Marketing and popularity were not on the selection committee’s list of criteria. 

"It would be irresponsible for us to talk about her in a way other than how she would impact the play of the team," Rizzotti said. "Because it wasn't the purview of our committee to decide how many people would watch or how many people would root for the US. It was our purview to create the best team we could for Cheryl."

Clark expressed that she'll be using what some consider a snub as fuel for a run at the 2028 Olympic team. 

"I think it just gives you something to work for," Clark told media after practice Sunday. "It's a dream. Hopefully one day I can be there. I think it's just a little more motivation. You remember that. Hopefully when four years comes back around, I can be there."

Watch more: "Were Caitlin Clark and Arike Ogunbowale snubbed?" on Expert Adjacent

Arsenal Women Confirm US Tour, Preseason Friendlies

Arsenal's Lotte Wubben-Moy battles with Mayra Ramirez of Chelsea at the 2023/24 FA Women's Continental Tyres League Cup Final
The last time Chelsea and Arsenal faced off, the Gunners took home the FA Women's League Cup. (Copa/Getty Images)

Arsenal announced on Monday that it will join Chelsea for a series of preseason friendlies in the US in August. 

Arsenal will be based in Washington, DC from August 15th through August 26th. The Gunners are scheduled to play the Washington Spirit on August 18th, followed by a match with fellow WSL team Chelsea on August 25th. It’s the first time that the two London clubs will meet each other on this side of the Atlantic. 

Chelsea had previously announced their game against Gotham FC, confirming reports from ESPN that surfaced last month.

"We always want to create the best conditions for our teams to prepare and perform at their best in pre-season," said Arsenal sporting director Edu Gaspar in a statement. "This gives our players an opportunity to play and train in a new environment, in front of our supporters around the world."

Both Arsenal and Chelsea tout rosters full of international talent — formidable opponents for two equally stacked NWSL teams gearing up for postseason action. Arsenal is home to accomplished England nationals Leah Williamson, Beth Mead, and backheel goal-scorer Alessia Russo alongside Ireland captain Katie McCabe and USWNT defender Emily Fox.

The games are set to be streamed live for free on DAZN.

Arsenal's US tour builds off of a trip to Melbourne, Australia at the tail end of the 2023/24 season, where they beat A-League All Stars women 1-0 in front of 42,120 fans.

US Women Defeat NC Courage to Claim $1 Million TST Prize

TST team US Women celebrate a semifinal win
USWNT legend Heather O’Reilly led the 7-on-7 side to victory at Monday's TST championship. (The Soccer Tournament)

The US Women 7-on-7 team won the first-ever edition of The Soccer Tournament’s women’s bracket, taking home the $1 million prize.

The TST concluded on Monday, with Ali Krieger and Heather O’Reilly leading the US Women past the North Carolina Courage’s 7-on-7 team to a 6-3 victory.

"I mean, at that moment, you're not thinking right? Like, I just saw the ball come to me and i was able to put it in the back of the net," said game-winning goal-scorer Talia DellaPeruta. "And it was just... everything kind of stopped for a second. When it went in, I just could not believe it. Like, that was the winning goal, everything that we had worked for this whole weekend.

"I'm just so grateful that I can contribute in that way and to be surrounded by such legends on the field. I mean, to be able to get us over that line, it's the best feeling I've ever felt. This is the best day ever."

Each team member will take home $40,000, with the winnings split equally amongst the 25-person group. First launched in 2023, TST is now the world’s highest-stakes women’s soccer tournament, offering equal $1 million prizes for both the men’s and women’s champions.

"Every single person, staff, players — we deserve it. One million dollars!" O'Reilly said in a team huddle after the victory.

USA Basketball Reportedly Finalizes 2024 Olympic Roster

Jewell Loyd #4 of the United States and Breanna Stewart #10 of the United States celebrate the teams victory during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics Japan V USA basketball final
This will be the first year since 1976 that USA Women's Basketball travels to the Summer Games without a single player under 26 years old. (Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)

The women’s basketball roster for the Paris Olympics has reportedly been decided, with star WNBA rookie Caitlin Clark left off the 12-player roster.

Three first-time Olympians are slated to join the team: the Sun's Alyssa Thomas, the Mercury's Kahleah Copper, and the Liberty's Sabrina Ionescu. Meanwhile Clark, Brionna Jones, and Aliyah Boston are reportedly on the short-list for an injury replacement should any of the rostered players not make it to Paris, according to The Athletic.

Chelsea Gray and Brittney Griner, who were both named to the team, are currently in the process of returning from injury.

"I'm excited for the girls that are on the team," Clark told reporters Sunday. "I know it's the most competitive team in the world and I know it could have gone either way — me being on the team or me not being on the team. I'm going to be rooting them on to win gold. I was a kid that grew up watching the Olympics, so it will be fun to watch them.

"Honestly, no disappointment. It just gives me something to work for — it's a dream... Hopefully when four years comes back around, I can be there."

The reported Olympic lineup leans heavily on its veterans, with Diana Taurasi preparing for her sixth Olympic Games — a new all-time international basketball record. In fact, not a single player under the age of 26 was listed, a noteworthy departure from previous years.

In every Olympic roster dating back to 1976, at least two players under the age of 25 made it onto the US women's basketball team. Nancy Lieberman, the youngest player to ever compete for the US Olympic basketball team, was just 18 when she joined the 1976 Summer Games. At the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, WNBA stars Napheesa Collier and A’ja Wilson were both rostered at 24 years old.

Clark said USA Basketball officials called to tell her the news before it reached the press, the same approach they used for all other Olympic hopefuls. But according to Fever head coach Christie Sides, what some might see as a snub could also act as the catalyst for improved performance in the future.

"The thing she said was, 'Hey coach, they woke a monster,' which I thought was awesome," Sides said.

Clark also expressed excitement about the potential to get some much-needed rest during the Olympic break.

"Absolutely, it's going to be really nice," Clark said. "I've loved competing every single second. But it's going to be a great month for my body to get rest, get healthy and just get a little time away from basketball and the craziness of everything that's been going on. And just find some peace and quiet for myself.

"But then additionally, it's a great opportunity for us to work and get better. A great opportunity for myself to get in the weight room. To work on the court, at things that I want to get better at that I maybe didn't have time [to] going from college to the pro season."

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