Athletes Unlimited is enabling professional athletes to become mothers without compromising their sports careers

·4 min read
athletes unlimited volleyball
© Athletes Unlimited, LLC 2020 / Credit: Jed Jacobsohn
  • Athletes Unlimited employs some of the top athletes on the planet.

  • Now, the network of pro women's sports leagues is making it easier for mothers to keep competing.

  • AU's pregnancy and parental leave policies give athletes flexibility to play and pursue motherhood.

  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

For too long, many of the world's best athletes were forced to choose between parenthood and professional sports.

But Athletes Unlimited is on a mission to change that - at least for the 150+ softball, volleyball, and lacrosse players it employs across its network of professional women's sports leagues.

"The key here is that you don't want to make players choose between pregnancy and their careers," Athletes Unlimited CEO and co-founder Jon Patricof told Insider. "This is the right thing to do. And that's ultimately the starting point - the overarching belief that we have as an organization."

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Athletes Unlimited softball players. Quinn Harris/Getty Images

As part of the network's newly-unveiled policy, all athletes under contract in any of Athletes Unlimited's leagues are entitled to unlimited paid parental leave during the season - regardless of whether they are pregnant, adopting a child, or supporting their partner though childbirth.

Players are not required "to notify the league or the team doctor about their pregnancies and they can choose whether to continue to play under their contract, with no penalty." And Athletes Unlimited has committed to accommodating players who are pregnant, breastfeeding, or in need of childcare while competing, thereby enabling many athletes who would otherwise be forced to retire to continue playing at the highest level.

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Athletes Unlimited volleyball player Karsta Lowe. AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez

"When I was finished playing the last season, I was like 'Oh, I'm gonna be done [with volleyball], and I have to be done in order to have a baby,'" AU Volleyball star Katie Carter said in a video highlighting her experience as a mother playing in the league. "That's a hard decision to make, because I've been playing my entire life and I've worked so hard to get to where I am."

"I hope that me being here with [my daughter] and the fact that we're playing on national television that it's known that there are mothers playing professional sport, like me," she added. "That in itself is such an inspiration to other people, because it shows that you don't have to choose."

Patricof helped found Athletes Unlimited with the vision of player-led leagues that empower their athletes to create their own ideal playing environment. So when it came time to develop a maternal leave policy - the process for which began "prior to actually announcing Athletes Unlimited in March of last year," according to the CEO - incorporating players' thoughts and ideas was a given.

"As a network of pro sports leagues, Athletes Unlimited has worked closely at every step of the way with the players - it's very much a player directed league," Patricof said. "So [the pregnancy policy] is a policy that we've reviewed with the players, talked to the players about, and had their voice and involvement in. That's obviously consistent with the way we've operated across the league from the beginning."

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Athletes Unlimited volleyball. Courtesy of Athletes Unlimited

That's a rarity in most business realms, but particularly within the professional sports space. Time and time again, women's sports stars have been left without support while starting a family.

It happened to Skylar Diggins-Smith, who kept her pregnancy secret for an entire WNBA season and later suggested that the Dallas Wings offered "limited resources to help me be successful mentally/physically." And it happened to Allyson Felix, the star Olympic sprinter who blasted Nike over her treatment while pregnant and has since battled the brand over athlete maternity protections.

But Athletes Unlimited took a unique approach, tapping nationally-recognized family and employment discrimination law expert Cynthia Calvert to help craft an all-encompassing policy.

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WNBA superstar Skylar Diggins-Smith, who now plays for the Phoenix Mercury. AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack

"So often with pregnant athletes, they fear being just being dismissed outright, which we've certainly seen happen," Calvert told Insider. "If they're in college, there's a fear of losing scholarships. If they're pro there's a fear of losing sponsorships, losing salary, having to leave for an entire season if you need the accommodation... Oftentimes when I'm working with employers, they are trying to do the minimum when it comes to accommodating pregnancy or accommodating maternity leave."

"This project was entirely different. I think it's because AU is so player centered, but we came at it from an entirely different perspective of what do the players need and how do we provide it," she added. "Rather than a typical approach of 'What's the minimum we have to give?' it all of a sudden became 'What can we do to make things easier for these players?'"

The result? "A very comprehensive package" that has changed the lives of some of the best athletes on the planet. Check out Athletes Unlimited's video tribute to its new policy, voiced over by Diggins-Smith, below:

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