Despite the slow progress our country has made in curbing workplace discrimination, there are still some types of discrimination that plague certain industries. One example is professional sports. In particular, sports-related jobs are often prone to disability, gender, and pregnancy discrimination due to the nature of the industry. Professional athletes are often hesitant to start a family for fear of losing sponsorships or getting less playing time for various reasons. For Serena Williams, a tennis giant, this situation became a reality.
Serena Williams gives birth and loses her spot
Despite winning four Olympic gold medals, and a total of 72 career singles titles, Williams still fell victim to discrimination based on her pregnancy. She took a leave of absence from competition when she became pregnant and later delivered her daughter in September of 2017. When she returned from leave, she had lost the benefits she had earned as a champion. In professional tennis, the highest ranked players each year are awarded “seeds” which give them certain benefits during tournaments. For example, unseeded players face higher ranked players earlier in a tournament, which can be a disadvantage. Despite being arguably the greatest female tennis player, when Serena Williams returned to the game from her pregnancy leave she had been unseeded in the French Open. To many, this action was considered both disrespectful and discriminatory. The French Open received a great deal of criticism for its decision.
Changes to the seeding procedure by the USTA
In the aftermath of the unseeding of Serena Williams, the United States Tennis Association (USTA) plans to modify their seeding procedure in order to take into account so that, in the future, additional factors that may have influenced an athlete’s ranking will be taken into consideration in the seeding process. These factors will include pregnancy and any pregnancy-related complications. This is a practice that Wimbledon already uses to a degree by exercising the right to modify the calculations on occasion in order to consider factors such as pregnancy. The consensus is that players should not be penalized for having a family. With the new USTA policy, professional tennis will be able to achieve equality and prevent discriminatory practices.
Professional sports arena not unlike the business world
If you think about it, professional sports athletes are subject to the same sort of discrimination as employees at a business. Placing an athlete who returns from maternity leave in a lower ranked position is the same as demoting an employee to an entry level position when she returns from maternity leave.
Further complications in the world of sports
Of course, when you make exceptions for one group others will feel they are being penalized. In other words, allowing one player who was on pregnancy leave to be seeded in an annual tournament will undoubtedly cause other players to lose the seeds that they worked for. But we must remember that nearly every other industry in the country is required to provide protected maternity leave for pregnant employees under the Family and Medical Leave Act. Professional athletes should not be exempt from this protection. If you feel you have been the victim of discrimination or retaliation in the workplace, or if you have any other questions regarding your employment rights, please contact the experienced employment law attorneys at Michel | King. You can contact us either online or by calling us at (205) 265-1880. We are here to serve you!