With NCAA silent on abortion bans, confusion consumes college sports

 With NCAA silent on abortion bans, confusion consumes college sports


(Irene Rinaldi for The Washington Post)
(Irene Rinaldi for The Washington Post)

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When a college athlete gets pregnant, school officials can turn to a “pregnancy tool kit,” provided by the NCAA, where a simple flowchart lays out how to respond.

After multiple positive pregnancy tests, the flowchart says, the athletic department should assemble a “decision-making team” of coaches, team doctors, athletic officials, family members, faith leaders and counselors. Then there is a choice, the flowchart says: The athlete can “elect to carry,” deliver the baby and eventually return to training after six to eight weeks. Or the athlete “elects to abort” and “returns to sport.” End of flowchart.

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, leading to abortion bans in 20 states and threatening abortion access in many more, that choice may have disappeared for many athletes, including many elite athletes in top programs, according to data compiled by The Washington Post.

The moment feels urgent for some coaches and athletic directors in states where abortion access is threatened. In interviews, they said the overturning of Roe has left them with little information about how to advise the young people in whose lives and health decisions they are expected to play significant roles. Some worry about recruiting women athletes to states where their reproductive rights have been curtailed.

“No one’s talking about this yet, but it has the potential to be a real issue,” said Jacquie Joseph, assistant athletic director and former softball coach at Michigan State, where a 1931 ban on abortion is currently blocked by the state’s court. “We’re going to get there come this fall.”

But the end of Roe has been met with silence from most of the college sports world, including the NCAA. Inside athletic departments dominated by men, three Division I coaches in states with abortion restrictions told The Post they were afraid to speak publicly in support of abortion rights, worried they could be targeted by their bosses, politicians or the public.


NCAA women’s sports in post-Roe America

Top programs in the most popular women’s sports are concentrated in states with abortion bans, or where the future of abortion is uncertain.

Schools in states where abortion is…

Banned​

or mostly

banned

Legal​ and

likely to be

protected

States ban status as of July 27th

Source: NCAA, Guttmacher Institute, Center for Reproductive Rights, Post reporting

THE WASHINGTON POST

NCAA women’s sports in post-Roe America

Top programs in the most popular women’s sports

are concentrated in states with abortion bans,

or where the future of abortion is uncertain.

Schools in states where abortion is…

Banned​

or mostly

banned

Legal​ and

likely to be

protected

States ban status as of July 27th

Source: NCAA, Guttmacher Institute, Center for Reproductive Rights, Post reporting

THE WASHINGTON POST

NCAA women’s sports in post-Roe America

Top programs in the most popular women’s sports are concentrated in states with abortion bans, or where the future of abortion is uncertain.

Schools in states where abortion is…

Banned​ or

mostly banned

Legal​ and likely

to be protected

States ban status as of July 27th

Source: NCAA, Guttmacher Institute, Center for Reproductive Rights, Post reporting

University of Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh, who is opposed to abortion, has been the only prominent college coach to speak about the issue. After he was quoted speaking at an antiabortion charity event this month, Harbaugh told ESPN that he saw abortion as an issue “that’s so big that it needs to be talked about. It needs serious conversation.”

Harbaugh said he would encourage Michigan players and staff members dealing with unplanned pregnancies to “go through with it.” If that person didn’t want to raise their child, Harbaugh said of himself and his wife, “Sarah and I will take that baby.”

Joseph said it wasn’t clear how it would be handled when a woman came into the athletic department with a pregnancy — or when a male athlete disclosed a pregnant partner.

“In the past, we’ve looked at pregnancy as health care — we’ve had women get pregnant, and we’ve had players have babies, and we’ve helped players make a different choice from a medical standpoint,” she said. “Now what are we going to do?”

The Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision has sparked confusion and anxiety on many college campuses, not just in sports. But as the NCAA spells out, coaches and other athletic department officials are involved in the lives and health care of college athletes in a way that gives the issue extra weight — and extra risk. College athletes are asked to waive privacy rights for some of their medical data, providing records to coaches, trainers and athletic departments.

“We’re intimately involved in their health decisions,” said a top athletic department official at a Division I school in a state with an abortion ban, who, fearing professional repercussions, spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It’s not like we make the decision, but we know about it. As an administrator, coach, athletic trainer — athletes have to disclose pregnancy because it’s going to impact their participation.”

“These conversations could come up, will come up, and there’s nothing I can say to them,” she said.

‘A full range of choices’

The NCAA’s “model policy for pregnant and parenting athletes” is 107 pages long, with detailed best practices that go far beyond the flowchart. There are statistics on the large numbers of athletes who are sexually active in college and case studies of pregnant athletes, including “worst-case scenarios” where athletes they felt forced to have abortions. A model dialogue lays out how athletic trainers “confronted with pregnancy” should interact with athletes, asking questions such as: “Is Coach aware of the situation? How do you feel about talking about it with her/him?”

The NCAA discourages athletic departments from requiring athletes to disclose pregnancies, saying they should create an environment that “encourages” athletes to reveal their pregnancies voluntarily instead. But it also permits athletic officials to report to team doctors or university representatives when they suspect an athlete is pregnant.

“A student-athlete should have a full range of choices,” the policy says, “including abortion or having the child, and withdrawing from or staying on the team.”

The organization did not put out a statement after the overturning of Roe — a contrast to last year, when many states sought to ban transgender athletes from competition. Though the number of transgender athletes participating in college sports remains low, the governing body put out a statement saying it “firmly and unequivocally supports” transgender athletes’ ability to compete.

In a recent statement to The Washington Post, the organization said: “The NCAA continues to evaluate the potential impact of the Supreme Court’s abortion care decision on student-athletes. The implementation of student-athlete healthcare takes place at the local level, therefore each school should develop policies that support its student-athletes while complying with both state and federal laws.”

Some college coaches and officials told The Post that they were concerned by how little the end of Roe was spoken about, even after a leaked draft of the court’s opinion offered weeks of warning.

“It hasn’t been addressed at all in our athletic department,” said one Division I women’s soccer coach who’s in a state where abortion is now banned. When it comes to handling athlete pregnancies, she said: “I don’t think there’s enough information. If there is, I haven’t been able to find it.”

Access to that information is critical for any student. But advocates have painted abortion rights as especially vital for young athletes, whose chances at a college education or a professional career depend on their bodies — which are changed significantly by pregnancies.

“College athletes are front and center to this issue to the extent that, for many women, their athletic prowess is their ticket to higher education,” said Joanna Wright, a partner at law firm Boies Schiller Flexner who wrote an amicus brief opposing the overturning of Roe that was signed by hundreds of female athletes. “Athletic success is dependent on bodily integrity and the ability to hone and control your own body.”

In the wake of the Dobbs decision, as state lawmakers across the country scramble to erase or protect abortion rights, those rights are currently expected to be protected in 20 states and the District of Columbia. But the power centers of elite women’s college sports are disproportionately in states where abortion access is likely to be restricted or banned altogether.

Many of the country’s most popular and highly watched women’s college sports events are held in states with some of the strictest abortion laws. The Women’s College World Series, which peaked at 2.1 million viewers in this year’s final, is hosted every year in Oklahoma City; the gymnastics final, which drew more than 1 million viewers, has been held in Fort Worth since 2019. The next four Women’s Final Fours are set in states where restrictions are in place or expected.

According to data compiled by The Post, many elite women’s college sports programs are also disproportionately concentrated in states with abortion bans and expected bans, or where the future of abortion rights is uncertain. It’s a dynamic that could restrict college choices for some top women’s athletes in the most popular sports.


Top-ranked NCAA women’s programs in states with abortion bans

In softball, gymnastics, basketball and volleyball, the highest ranked programs are in states where abortion is now illegal.

Banned​ or mostly banned

Legal​ and likely

to be protected

States ban status as of July 27th

Source: NCAA, Guttmacher Institute, Center for Reproductive Rights, Post reporting

THE WASHINGTON POST

Top-ranked NCAA women’s programs in states with abortion bans

In softball, gymnastics, basketball and volleyball, the highest ranked programs are in states where abortion is now illegal.

Banned​ or mostly banned

Legal​ and likely

to be protected

States ban status as of July 27th

Source: NCAA, Guttmacher Institute, Center for Reproductive Rights, Post reporting

THE WASHINGTON POST

Top-ranked NCAA women’s programs in states with abortion bans

In softball, gymnastics, basketball and volleyball, the highest ranked programs are in states where abortion is now illegal.

Banned​ or mostly banned

Legal​ and likely to be protected

States ban status as of July 27th

Source: NCAA, Guttmacher Institute, Center for Reproductive Rights, Post reporting

In volleyball, just one of last season’s top 10 programs was in a state with abortion protections in place. In both women’s basketball and softball, just four of the top 25 programs were in states with abortion protections, and 15 were in states with abortion bans or where bans are likely. And in women’s soccer, where top programs are the main feeders into professional leagues, 11 of the top 25 programs are in states with bans or expected bans, and another seven are in states where the future of abortion is uncertain.

Sophie Adler left the D.C. area for Texas to play soccer at SMU, which is among the top 25 women’s programs. She graduated last year but said she questioned whether she would have made the same decision had Texas’s abortion ban been in effect.

College-shopping students have a new query: Is abortion legal there?

“When you’re looking for where you’re going to spend the next four years, a big part of it is where you feel safe. I went to the campus of SMU, and I felt safe. But looking back now — I don’t know if it would have been the end-all-be-all for me, but I think it would have been an issue,” she said. “Would I have even looked in Texas? I don’t know.”

Some coaches said it was too early to tell whether abortion rights would affect where young women and other athletes attend college. But others said that as time went on, they expected that abortion restrictions would affect their schools’ ability to draw top women’s athletes.

“In terms of recruiting, I think it absolutely will make a difference,” said the athletic department official from a state with an abortion ban. At the private university where she works, she said: “The general student body here has enough money to get out of state if they need to. Our student-athletes don’t necessarily have that money. If they’re not thinking about it, they should be.”

Nell Fortner, a prominent women’s basketball coach who is now at Georgia Tech, said that in June, shortly after Roe was overturned, she found herself in an office with several of her youngest players and asked what they thought about the end of Roe. She discovered they knew nothing about it — or about Title IX, the 1972 civil rights law that was likely the reason they were able to play college sports.

“My biggest message with my kids here is that we as women had a fundamental right that’s been taken away from us,” Fortner said. “Whether you believe in it or not, whether you think it’s right or wrong, this is a lawful right that we do not have anymore.”

Title IX’s 50th anniversary, which was June 23, was celebrated across the sports world, with the NCAA, colleges and many professional teams marking the step toward equality. Roe, which would have celebrated its own 50th anniversary in January, was reversed June 24.

For some officials upset over the end of Roe, the contrast was clear. And it was linked, some said, to the stark gender imbalance among college sports leaders: 75 percent of NCAA coaches and athletic directors are men, according to NCAA data.

“It’s not lost on any of us that we celebrated Title IX and then the next day this came out,” the Division I athletic department official said. “You heard something from female figures in sports, but this is still a male-dominated industry, and we haven’t broken out of that, no matter how many people tell you it’s changing. A lot of males failed to even see the connection.”

Joseph, the assistant athletic director at Michigan State, hopes to get more college sports figures to care about Roe by framing the decision in terms of how it will affect the lives and careers of male athletes, too.

“There are going to be unplanned pregnancies,” Joseph said. “It does disproportionately impact women, but what are we going to do to hold the [men] accountable? Should he get to play when she doesn’t? If she’s forced to have a pregnancy, should he have a season? To me, that has to be part of it, too. This is an issue for both men and women.”

Randy Lane, the women’s gymnastics coach at Long Island, was one of only a few Division I coaches to speak up against the overturning of Roe, putting out a statement in June saying he was “horrified” by the decision.

“One out of every four women will have an abortion in her lifetime. That includes NCAA athletes,” Lane wrote. “You, as gymnasts, should have full control over your own bodies, choices, and health.”

Lane told The Post that he had been thinking about what to say since May, when the draft opinion was leaked, feeling a responsibility partly because of how the abuses of former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State doctor Larry Nassar tarnished his sport’s image.

“I was very certain I wanted to give a statement,” he said. “I cried several times thinking about not only my friends having this freedom taken away but all the women I coach, the women in my sport that I’ve recruited that don’t go to my school but go to a school in a state that doesn’t allow this.”

In gymnastics, which is among the most popular NCAA sports for women, more than half of the top 25 programs are in states with abortion bans, including four of the top five. Lane said he had little hope that the NCAA would make a statement about Roe, but he turned to other coaches and gymnastics leaders in hopes that they might choose to make statements of their own. Ultimately, he said, no one did.

At a coaches’ convention in May, Lane said: “I spoke to probably eight to 10 coaches. Once we got home, we stopped talking about it. I was hoping to get people to step up and make a statement, but it hasn’t happened for whatever reason. It’s at the point now where I’m thinking I’m going to send my statement again and say, ‘What are your thoughts?’ ”



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