Planning for the Unplanned

By Staff

Athletic Management, 17.3, April/May 2005, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1703/wuunplanned.htm

If a student-athlete at your university becomes pregnant, what is the policy regarding continued participation in her sport? What is the policy regarding her scholarship?

Universities across the country have very different answers, as some strictly prohibit pregnant student-athletes from participating and others actively protect their scholarships and encourage participation with a doctor’s okay. Perhaps the most common scenario, however, is that an institution has no policy in place to address the issue at all.

At Wright State University, Elizabeth Sorensen, Faculty Athletic Representative and Assistant Professor in the College of Nursing and Health, is trying to change that. Working with Wright State Athletic Director Michael Cusack and the school’s sports-medicine staff, Sorensen helped draft a comprehensive policy on student-athlete pregnancy, which Wright State adopted one year ago. Sorensen believes that such documents are needed at all institutions, and she has urged the NCAA to consider adding legislation to address the issue.

Administrators at Wright State developed their policy after two student-athletes became pregnant and voluntarily withdrew from their sports, losing their scholarships. "We also believed that other athletes who became pregnant were concealing their pregnancies and continuing to play, or feeling pressure to quickly opt for an abortion," Sorensen says. "A policy was needed to make sure this would no longer happen."

The first goal of the Wright State policy was to clarify the university’s philosophy on the issue. "Our policy makes it clear that we view pregnancy as a health event in an athlete’s life, and that she is to be treated no differently than someone with a knee injury, a shoulder injury, or any other temporary medical condition," Sorensen says.

Next, the Wright State policy requires the university to assist a pregnant athlete in two very specific ways. First, it will help her obtain neutral counseling from someone outside the athletic department prior to making any decision about her course of action. Second, it will form a decision-making team to address her continued participation, which includes the athlete, her coach, her obstetrician, the team physician, an athletic trainer, and the athletic director. The policy also makes it clear that a student-athlete who becomes pregnant will not lose her scholarship during the current granting year, and actively educates pregnant student-athletes against withdrawing from their sports, since that can lead to loss of scholarship.

With a policy in place, Wright State’s next step was communicating it. To get the word out to athletes, Sorensen met with each women’s team and Wright State’s Student-Athlete Advisory Council, and made sure the information was included in this year’s student-athlete handbook.

Sorensen also met with the coaches of all of Wright State’s women’s teams. "I told them that a pregnant athlete is to be treated no differently than an athlete with any other temporary medical condition," she says. "Coaches have a lot of feelings about this issue, and I allowed them to discuss those feelings. But ultimately, I made it clear that this is our policy."

Over the past year, the NCAA has considered adopting the Wright State policy as a model for all member institutions. The policy was reviewed by the Committee on Women’s Athletics in June 2004, and sent to the Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports. That committee discussed the policy in December, focusing primarily on medical aspects and continued participation, but ultimately decided not to take action on it.

"We believe that the Wright State policy is consistent with what the medical community advises, and it is well organized and contains very helpful information," says David Klossner, NCAA Assistant Director of Education Outreach and liaison to the Competitive Safeguards Committee. "However, we decided it was best to leave the development of specific policy up to individual institutions, rather than endorsing this particular one. We believe each institution can develop a policy regarding the medical issues involved based on the guidance already in place in the NCAA Sports Medicine Handbook."

According to Klossner, the committee did not address the scholarship issues involved—one of the places Sorensen sees an urgent need for more discussion, because she feels NCAA guidelines are unclear. NCAA bylaw 15.3.2.2 prevents schools from canceling aid if a student-athlete’s physical condition makes him or her unable to participate, and bylaw 15.3.4.4 protects an athlete’s scholarship if an injury or medical condition prevents participation. However, the NCAA doesn’t specify whether or not pregnancy falls under these protected categories. "I believe that pregnancy needs to be specifically named under those NCAA bylaws," Sorensen says.

In the meantime, Sorensen urges athletic directors to consider implementing a policy at their own institutions. "A student-athlete getting pregnant is a situation we hope doesn’t happen, but if it does, administrators, coaches, and sports-medicine staff need clear guidelines on how to deal with it," she says. "Since it’s left up to each institution to set a policy, it’s critical to put one into place."

For more on the Wright State policy, visit: www.ncaa.org/news/2004/20040412/awide/4108n14.html.

A more in-depth discussion of the medical aspects affecting pregnant student-athletes was recently published in our sister publication, Training & Conditioning, and is available at by searching "Changing Times" at: www.AthleticSearch.com.