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Pregnancy Is Perilous For Female Basketball Stars

A new documentary highlights a growing issue for women's sports: What happens when a player gets pregnant?
 
 
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The Women's National Basketball League celebrates its 10th anniversary this summer, and with 14 teams, the league's doubters have been silenced. But each season fans wonder about the absence of a stalwart player or two normally on each team's roster. Retirement? Injury? No, not necessarily.

The missing players -- stars like DeMya Walker and Marie Ferdinand -- may be pregnant or have recently given birth, one of the realities of the WNBA and other women's professional leagues. Seeing athletes play out their postpartum weight loss on national TV offers an up-close view of what it takes to get back into game shape. Houston Comets star Sheryl Swoopes is proof it can be done. She has been named MVP a record three times since having her son Jordan 10 years ago.

The athletes of the WNBA are the best of the best, and their league has a supportive pregnancy policy. Not every athlete is so lucky. Take Darnellia Russell, a high school player in a new documentary about a girls' basketball team from Seattle.

In " The Heart of the Game," directed by Ward Serrill, the Roosevelt High Roughriders are stuck in the losing column until tax professor and novice coach Bill Resler walks into their lives. He gives them permission to be competitive and ruthless on the court allowing the team to thrive. When Darnellia enrolls and walks into the gym, Coach Resler, a father of daughters, smells her talent. The team's wins pile up, even with Darnellia playing most of her junior year pregnant without knowing it.

Darnellia gave birth to her daughter Trekayla in December 2002. When she tried to return to the team as a senior, she had too few academic credits to play because of missed school during her pregnancy. She made up the credits, yet still was denied eligibility under Washington state rules that govern high school athletics -- her pregnancy was not a "hardship," a designation that would allow her to make up the credits and qualify. Darnellia had hoped, through an athletic scholarship, to fulfill her dream of becoming the first in her family to go to college. She had letters of interest from a number of schools before she got pregnant. After the baby the interest pretty much disappeared, and with it, Darnellia's dreams of a college education and maybe even the WNBA.

Women's basketball has come a long way since the first game at Smith College on March 21, 1893 -- with a major boost from Title IX passage in 1972. It's no news flash that young women accidentally get pregnant, and Title IX regulations would seem to offer students some protection. They state that recipients of federal funds "must treat disabilities related to pregnancy the same way as any other temporary disability in any medical or hospital benefit, service, plan or policy which they offer to students. … Following this leave, the student must be reinstated to her original status."

Yet no uniform policy at either the school or professional level protects a pregnant athlete's rights. The resulting insecurity, especially for athletes on scholarship, can cause women to hide their pregnancies or have abortions. Of course, the guys who get women pregnant suffer no repercussions, financial or otherwise.

Stepping into the void, Elizabeth Sorensen, a nurse and the faculty athletics representative at Wright State University, has become an authority on athletes and pregnancy. She created a policy for Wright State, and is now trying to build momentum for a comprehensive, proactive policy that focuses on an athlete's well-being. In 2003, she submitted her policy to the NCAA, but the collegiate athletic governing body has not taken up the issue. The women's community is taking notice, however. The Women's Sports Foundation is about to release its own position paper on athletic competition and pregnancy, and the National Women's Law Center has also begun to consider the issue.

No one pretends that it's easy to return to play at the same level after a pregnancy. But for WNBA players, basketball is their job. Although a league veteran, Allison Feaster was still nervous when she got pregnant: "I was really concerned about just announcing my pregnancy and how it would affect my ability to stay in my job. I'd say put the pressure on the lawmakers to do their part so that we are protected."

Darnellia Russell would love the opportunity to show a school that she has come back from her pregnancy. She is waiting for the phone to ring with a college coach giving her that chance.

Melissa Silverstein is a writer who edits the morning news briefing for the Women's Media Center.