Editorial | Great athletes can be great mothers
This week, we had further validation of the female athlete when FIFA, the world-governing body of football, announced maternity leave protection for its players.
A positive first step in professionalising women’s football is how local coach Hubert Busby Jr greeted the new measures, which will offer protection to female players before, during, and after childbirth. National clubs have been given the green light to provide players with at least 14 weeks’ maternity leave, at two-thirds of their salary.
“It’s long overdue,” said Busby, who welcomed the fact that players would no longer have to choose between career and motherhood, since, with protection, they will be able to do both, like other women in the workforce.
FIFA’s mandate is to develop the sport of football, and by introducing these new measures, it is helping to send the message that it is possible to combine motherhood with a sporting career.
Even though women have brought untold glory to their nations in competitive sports, sometimes even outshining men, they continue to fight pay inequality and come up against discriminatory practices in relation to maternity benefits and sponsorship. This may explain why fans erupted in spontaneous chants of “Equal pay!” when the US women’s soccer team lifted its fourth World Cup title in France last summer.
We remember the famous words of tennis legend Billie Jean King, who said: “Everyone thinks women should be thrilled when we get crumbs, and I want women to have the cake, the icing, and the cherry on top, too,” as she made the case for equal prize money in the sport.
On the matter of sponsorship, the simmering controversy came to a boil last year when celebrated American track and field athlete Allyson Felix detailed her challenges with sponsor Nike, who offered to pay 70 per cent of her sponsorship fee during her 2018 pregnancy. Many fingers were pointed and blame levelled at sponsors in a series of media exposures. Until then, athletes kept mainly silent because they had signed non-disclosure agreements and feared retribution or lawsuits.
Professional female athletes like Felix, Serena Williams, and our own Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce have demonstrated that they had the discipline to get back into shape, get back in the game, and romp home triumphantly after childbirth. Who can forget the thrilling image of Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce clutching her son Zyon on the track after she had clinched the 100-metres sprint gold in Qatar in 2019?
A growing number of women professionals have decided to add motherhood to their list of accomplishments, and their stories continue to inspire other women athletes and young mothers. Balancing their careers, be it in football, tennis, or athletics, with motherhood, is as challenging as when they are on the field of play. Living the life of a mother-athlete represents a transition but not the end of a career.
We believe that Fraser-Pryce sent an important message on the track in Doha. She was saying, in effect, that you are not merely celebrating me as an elite athlete, but equally important, you are celebrating me as a mother.
The tenor of the commentary has to change when the subject of female career development is being discussed. Consideration must be given to supporting female sport professionals in all aspects of their lives.
Fans who recognise that the sporting window of a professional athlete is short also understand that starting a family can minimise that window. But many athletes have done it, and some have come back being even more powerful. Sponsors should be made to understand that they are wrong to pressure female athletes-turned mothers to return to competition before they are ready. They should not punish women for wanting to start a family.
The bottom line is that starting a family should not mean the end of a sporting career. Great athletes can be great mother, too.