Pregnant Athletes Face Different Challenge

CSTV U-WIRE) TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Sharetta Riggins sat alone on the bathroom floor outside her college coliseum. The only sound was her heart pounding through her chest.

This was the moment of truth. Her future, her hopes, her dreams and everything she had worked her entire life for were on the line.

Once the two blue lines appeared on the white stick, it was over. This was real life now.

Many women wait their entire lives for that instant of utter bliss when they know they are about to bring a life into the world, but this was a mistake. This was the 18-year-old record-setting volleyball star. The only thoughts on her mind throbbed dully over and over, “Why me? Why now?”

She said she remembers sitting there on that cold tile floor for hours crying, just praying it was a nightmare that would go away. How would she tell her coach, her teammates or worse, her mother, who had sacrificed so much for her college career?

“I couldn’t even tell her,” she said with a lump in her throat. “I went home, wrote her a note and left. I told her to call me when she was ready to talk.”

In the distance she heard the familiar roar of shoes squeaking on the court. She heard her teammates encouraging one another, and her coach yelling for everyone to hustle. These were the sounds that had become a part of her second nature, the sounds that governed her every day and the sounds that belonged to a deep part of her.

“You take a lot for granted,” she said. “I couldn’t believe I was going to have to leave it behind. Without volleyball, I didn’t think I could do anything.”

Riggins, the now-20-year-old student athlete who recently returned to college sports after having a baby, is one of many who have been sidelined by pregnancy and have been forced to make heartbreaking decisions.

While some NCAA schools allow the athlete to keep her athletic scholarship if she becomes pregnant, other schools revoke all scholarship privileges, forcing athletes into painful situations. Such instances have led NCAA officials to review their guidelines amid reports of scholarship loss.

In April, Cassandra Harding, a member of the University of Memphis track team, told The Associated Press she lost her scholarship after becoming pregnant. In May, a Clemson athlete told ESPN she had an abortion to stay in school.

Harding and other female students at the University of Memphis and Clemson contend they had to sign documents acknowledging scholarships could be lost because of pregnancy.

But the Clemson athlete who aborted her pregnancy is not alone, and pregnancy among athletes occurs more often than people may realize. Riggins said she has met several other athletes who aborted their pregnancies for fear of losing their scholarships.

“I know it happens, but it was never an option for me,” she said. “My hope was to have the baby and get my body back to where I could compete again.”

Jack Byerley, assistant softball coach at Auburn University, said while the issue is rarely discussed publicly, athlete pregnancies do in fact occur more frequently than one might think.

“When we talk to our student athletes, they definitely say it’s something that happens, and that it’s not a zero-frequency event,” said the 52-year-old coach, who has also dealt with several athlete pregnancies in his 18-year tenure of coaching. “The reason it’s kept quiet is that an athlete may choose to leave for personal reasons.”

But when it comes to the topic of pregnancy, few college athletes are receiving the same message from administrators and coaches. Most schools do not have a set policy on pregnancy, and most athletes describe an atmosphere in which the topic is rarely discussed.

One statistic from a study at Wright State University suggests only 26 of the more than 270 Division I schools in the NCAA have written policies on pregnant athletes and just a handful include scholarship protections.

University of Alabama women’s head basketball coach Stephany Smith said Alabama does not currently have a written policy on pregnancy, but she doesn’t necessarily see it as a negative thing.

“Having a policy in place does not mean it will be abided by,” she said. “I don’t need someone to tell me what’s right and wrong in that kind of situation because I’m going to choose what’s right. The key is establishing a close-knit support system where athletes feel they can depend on.”

Smith, a 42-year-old Mississippi native, said the big picture is educating young athletes.

“I am certainly a product of the ‘ignore it and it will go away’ generation,” she said. “But after 18 years, I’ve learned you have to be frank and make the student-athletes aware because it’s a reality of life. We want to lay it out so that if it does happen they will feel support coming from all areas.”

Head volleyball coach Judy Green said she agreed. Though Green has never had to deal with a pregnancy issue during her 12-year tenure at Alabama, she said she wants her players to be aware of the ramifications.

“It’s important to handle a lot of wellness subjects, and our athletic trainers play a large role in that,” Green said. “We want our players to protect themselves and be able to show them the way to do it and who can help.”

When it comes to the actual policy, Green said she wants the greatest benefit for the athlete.

“It may need to be looked at one a case-by-case basis, but the important thing for the NCAA is to support the athlete,” she said.

Though NCAA rules allow a school to grant an athlete an extra year of eligibility if she’s out for a year because of pregnancy, the rules don’t require it, nor do they spell out the rights of a pregnant athlete. NCAA rules do allow scholarships to be revoked if an athlete voluntarily decides she’s unable to continue playing.

Neil Thomas, Riggins’ volleyball coach at Shaw University, a private institution in Raleigh, N.C., said she doesn’t care if an athlete has a child as long as she is willing and able to play.

“It’s not easy to come back from a pregnancy and be an athlete,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if you are a Division I athlete or not. If someone’s got the moxie to do it, then we’re going to be there trying to make it happen.”

NCAA member colleges renew athletic scholarships annually and have wide latitude in deciding which ones not to renew, but they also must abide by Title IX.

Title IX states that institutions receiving federal funds cannot discriminate against any person on the basis of sex, and the law also mandates that those institutions “shall not exclude any student from its education program or activity … on the basis of such student’s pregnancy, childbirth, false pregnancy, termination of pregnancy or recovery therefrom.”

And while the 458-page NCAA Division I manual has rules governing almost everything from the logos on team socks to meal money on road trips, when it comes to athletes and pregnancy, it offers little guidance. As a result, the NCAA could be leaving its member institutions open to Title IX violations.

But NCAA officials were urged to meet this summer to discuss pregnancy concerns at a conference in Clemson. No final decision has been reported, but officials could actually be working toward a possible amendment to the NCAA bylaws that would likely prevent an athlete from losing her scholarship if she became pregnant, according to reports after the conference.

According to Doug Walker, Alabama associate athletics director for media relations, the athletics department is working on a written policy regarding pregnancy in female athletes and their protection also.

Riggins’s father was shot and killed in a bar fight and her mother worked to support Riggins and her younger sister as a janitor in the local hospital.

Riggins said she knew a volleyball scholarship was her ticket to future financial stability even though she does receive some aid from her boyfriend – her child
‘s father and a rookie defensive end for the New York Giants. What she didn’t know was that same scholarship would be the root of her consternation when it was rescinded four months later.

Riggins now lives in a residence hall at Shaw University and plays volleyball once again. One corner of her room is piled with a collection of brightly colored toys with the Playskool radio placed on top, her son’s favorite.

Seven months ago, the toys would have been strewn throughout her room, but for now, the toys simply serve as a constant reminder of her 12-month-old son, LaMychael, who is 600 miles away in Alabama with Riggins’ mother.

But the days of crying over uncertainty are finally over.

“At one time I thought having a baby was the worst thing that could have ever happened to me, but when I see my baby boy’s smiling face, and he runs to give me a hug, I might have actually gotten the best thing in the world,” Riggins said.

Leave a Reply

Back To Top