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.”

(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.”