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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.”

New Washington Spirit Head Coach Jonatan Giráldez Arrives in DC

head coach Jonatan Giráldez
Jonatan Giráldez joins the NWSL from FC Barcelona Femení. (Ramsey Cardy/UEFA via Getty Images)

Five months after announcing that the Washington Spirit had hired Barcelona Femení coach Jonatan Giráldez as the team's new head coach, Giráldez has joined the club in Washington, DC.

Giráldez is coming off of a successful season with the Spanish side, having won UEFA Women's Champions League, Copa de la Reina, Supercopa, and Liga F in his final season to complete a lauded Quadruple.

While Giráldez was finishing out his tenure in Europe, Adrián González filled in as Spirit interim head coach. González has also seen success, leading the team to its third-place standing with a 9-3-1 record through 13 games.

“I’m thrilled to join the Spirit and begin this next chapter with the club,” Giráldez said in an official team statement. “To be part of the vision Michele Kang has for the Spirit and women’s soccer globally is an exciting opportunity.”

Giráldez has worked at Barcelona since 2019, initially coming on as an assistant coach before moving up to head coach in 2021. The team went 30-0-0 on the season under Giráldez during his first year as manager.

He brings along with him Andrés González and Toni Gordo, who will serve as the Spirit's Fitness Coach and Club Analyst, respectively.

US Track & Field Olympic Trials Touch Down in Oregon

Sha’Carri Richardson competes in the women’s 200-meter preliminary round during the USATF Outdoor Championships
Sha’Carri Richardson will have some competition this week as athletes vie for an Olympic berth. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

The US Olympic Track & Field Trials begin on June 21st, kicking off a 10-day quest to determine who will represent the US in Paris this summer.

The crucial meet will take place in Eugene, Oregon, where the top three finishers in each event will punch their ticket to the 2024 Olympics. As with this past week's US Swimming Trials, even the most decorated athletes must work to earn their spot — and one bad performance could undermine four years of preparation.

Reigning 100-meter World Champion Sha'Carri Richardson headlines this year's field, as the 24-year-old looks to qualify for her second Olympic Games and compete in her first. Richardson is a world champion in both the 100-meter and 200-meter sprint, but missed the Tokyo Olympics due to testing positive for THC shortly after the last US Olympic Trials.

Other standouts include 400-meter Olympic gold medal-winning hurdler Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone, who's currently the most decorated athlete in the active women's US Track & Field pool. McLaughlin-Levrone qualified to run in the 200-meter and 400-meter flat races alongside the 400-meter hurdles at the Olympic Trials, but opted to focus solely on her signature event.

800-meter specialist Athing Mu will also be a huge draw this week, as the Olympic gold medalist looks to shake off a lingering hamstring injury while pursuing her second Summer Games. Gold medal-winning pole vaulter Katie Moon will also attempt to qualify for her second-straight Olympic Games.

Ole Miss star McKenzie Long could be Richardson's greatest competition in the 100-meter and 200-meter events, as well as Richardson's Worlds teammate Gabby Thomas in the 200-meter. In field events, watch for Oregon senior Jaida Ross going head-to-head with reigning world champion Chase Jackson in the shot put, as both push for their first Olympic team berth.

Regardless of why you tune in, the US Olympic Trials are a perpetually thrilling and sometimes brutal qualification process. If you're able to make your way to the head of the pack, a shot at Olympic glory might just be waiting at the finish line.

Fans can catch live coverage throughout the Trials via NBC, USA, and Peacock.

Top Teams Square Off in NWSL Weekend Slate

NWSL Orlando Pride forward Barbra Banda
Orlando Pride, led by forward Barbra Banda, will take on Utah in this weekend's NWSL action. (Nicholas Faulkner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

As the NWSL season continues, a few top-performing clubs will have a chance to boost their standings this weekend.

First-place Kansas City will travel to Providence Park to take on fifth-place Portland, as the Current look to keep their unbeaten streak intact. And in New Jersey, third-place Washington will take on fourth-place Gotham FC, with both teams attempting to extend multi-game unbeaten streaks.

A six-point gap has opened between the fifth and sixth spot on the NWSL table — with just six points also separating the league's top five. Kansas City, Orlando, Washington, Gotham, and Portland have recently proven themselves to be a cut above the rest of the competition. With eight postseason spots up for grabs and half the season behind us, a pattern is forming that indicates the playoff race could come down to spots six through eight on the NWSL table.

Of those top five teams, only Orlando faces an opponent in the bottom half of the league this weekend: The Pride will take on 14th-place Utah, who nonetheless are coming off a win — just their second of the season — over Bay FC last weekend.

But despite Kansas City and Orlando having yet to lose a game, Gotham might be the squad coming into the weekend with the most momentum.

Clutch goals from Rose Lavelle and rookie Maycee Bell gave the Bats a 2-0 midweek win over San Diego on Wednesday, in a rematch of the 2024 Challenge Cup. Gotham's unbeaten streak dates all the way back to April, as rising availability and sharpened form have honed this year's superteam into a contender.

Bottom line? As the NWSL season passes the halfway mark, some matches might begin to feel more like playoff previews than mere regular season battles.

Chelsea Gray Returns From Injury in Aces Win Over Seattle

las vegas aces chelsea gray and kelsey plum celebrate a win over the seattle storm
Gray has been sidelined with a foot injury since the 2023 WNBA Finals. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Chelsea Gray made her return to the basketball court on Wednesday, helping the Aces to a 94-83 win over the Seattle Storm. 

The lauded point guard missed the first 12 games of the season, having been injured in last year’s WNBA Finals. The left foot injury caused her to miss Game 4 of the championship series, and she’s continued to rehab it through the beginning of the 2024 season. 

Her return on Wednesday was capitalized by the fact that she needed just 20 seconds to make an impact and record her first assist. While she finished with just one point, she had seven assists, four rebounds, and two blocks to go alongside it in 15:30 minutes. Gray's contributions on the night brought her career assist record up to 1,500.

"I probably went through every emotion leading up to today," Gray said after the game. "I was a little anxious all day. It's been a long time since I've been out on that court. But the fans were amazing from the time I came out to warm up to the time I checked in the game. It was a rush and a feeling I missed a lot."

It’s been a roller coaster of a season so far for Las Vegas, who have lost five of their last seven games. Gray, who averaged 15.3 points, 7.3 assists, and 4.0 rebounds in 2023, has proven herself a much-needed addition to the team’s lineup.

"Felt like my heart," Aces coach Becky Hammon said when asked how she felt hearing the crowd erupt for Gray's return. "She's the leader of our team. I thought she did a wonderful job too."

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