The day before she was scheduled to leave for the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympic Games, track star Sanya Richards-Ross was somewhere she never thought she’d be: in a car, on her way to an abortion clinic. Her heart heaved between relief and panic at what was happening to her. “I knew I was at a crossroads. Everything I ever wanted seemed to be within reach. The culmination of a lifetime of work was right before me. In that moment, it seemed like no choice at all… All of the crying leading up to that moment had left me so numb that I barely remember the cold instruments as they brushed against my skin,” she says in her book, Chasing Grace: What the Quarter Mile Has Taught Me About God and Life.
The very next day, she boarded a flight to Beijing. The procedure left her feeling empty and in despair, but Richards-Ross bottled up her sorrow. She didn’t tell her coaches, her Team USA peers, or even her father. In the individual 400 meter sprint, her feelings of shame, guilt, and unworthiness affected her performance, resulting in a third-place finish instead of the Olympic gold she was favored to win. “I made a decision that broke me,” she writes.
As the world prepares for the Tokyo Olympics to finally get underway after being postponed last year, Richards-Ross’s devastating experience with a crisis pregnancy is, in some respects, being repeated by a different track and field athlete, this time in the public eye.
Brianna McNeal, who won gold in 2016 in Rio, has just been banned from her sport for five years and will miss the Olympics after skipping a drug test in January 2020. She told the New York Times that she didn’t hear the anti-doping representative knocking at her door because she was recovering from an abortion, traumatized, and curled up in her bed.
According to the Times, athletes have to miss three tests in a 12 month period before an investigation is triggered. But wanting to demonstrate how compliant she was, McNeal got a note from the abortion provider who had ended her pregnancy so that she would be fit and ready for the 2020 Games. Looking at the documentation before sending it to the authorities, she thought the doctor had recorded the date wrong. So she changed it.
The Athletics Integrity Unit, which investigates such cases, noticed the alteration, and a bureaucratic chain reaction began which resulted in McNeal losing her chance to compete at the Olympics because of problems with the paperwork she was never required to submit in the first place. She has never been accused of doping.
McNeal says investigators didn’t believe she was traumatized after the abortion because she continued to post on social media, and they criticized her for seeking help for post-abortive depression from a spiritual advisor instead of a psychiatrist. “Right now I feel excommunicated from the sport itself and stigmatized,” McNeal told the Times.
The stigma reflects a little-talked-about problem in women’s sports. “I literally don’t know another female track athlete who hasn’t had an abortion,” Richards-Ross told Sports Illustrated Now. “And that’s sad.” She attributed the situation to misinformation circulating among peers on college campuses that pregnancy is impossible for women athletes who have lost their menstrual cycles due to extreme exercise.
Richards-Ross’s description of her thought process, that she had “no choice at all” and risked losing a lifetime of work if she continued her pregnancy, speaks to a culture around sports that encourages athletes to sacrifice and do “whatever it takes” to perform at the highest level. Indeed, her baby’s father, star NFL cornerback Aaron Ross, who is now her husband, couldn’t be with her when she visited the abortion clinic that day. “Nothing interrupted [Coach] Tom Coughlin’s [training] schedule for the Super Bowl champions. Nothing,” she wrote in her book.
“I know as an athlete that so much of our identity is centered around the sport we play and we have so many ambitions and hopes for what we can do,” Christina Pirrotta told me. She’s a rising fourth-year student at University of Chicago and plays center back on the school’s varsity soccer team. “While I know the timing for her pregnancy wasn’t ideal, I believe that McNeal would have still found her way in life—as a mother and as an athlete.”
Pirrotta is involved with Students for Life of America, an organization that has created a Pregnant on Campus Bill of Rights to educate women about the protection they’re entitled to. “I think women who have unplanned pregnancies are in a very difficult spot because at least in the current moment it may seem like so much is ending.”
For student athletes, one thing that a pregnancy definitely threatens to end is scholarship money. ESPN contacted hundreds of college administrators and athletes and found policies that practically shoved vulnerable women into abortion clinics. At Clemson University, at least seven athletes had ended pregnancies out of fear of losing their places on their teams—and their financial support. One student described getting a second abortion after being warned by a Clemson administrator about her scholarship. According to ESPN, the student had signed a document that said: “Pregnancy resulting in the inability to compete and positively contribute to the program's success will result in the modification of your grant-in-aid money.”
Cassandra Harding, another student ESPN spoke to, attempted to end a pregnancy to preserve her track scholarship at the University of Memphis, only to discover she was four months along and too late to have an abortion. Like the Clemson student, she’d signed a policy that called out pregnancy as a violation that would cause “immediate dismissal and nonrenewal of scholarship.” It wasn’t an idle threat: Memphis coaches cut Harding’s scholarship off after they learned she was having a baby.
If this treatment sounds like it should be illegal, that’s because it is: Under Title IX, a federal civil rights law intended to prevent sex discrimination, any school that receives federal money can’t treat students differently because of their sex or parental status.
Pregnancy discrimination follows athletes off-campus, too. In a bombshell series of New York Times articles in 2019, multiple women spoke about how Nike stopped paying them after they had a baby. “Getting pregnant is the kiss of death for a female athlete,” explained Phoebe Wright, a sponsored track star. Olympic gold medalist Allyson Felix wrote in an editorial that deciding to have a child was “terrifying” for her because it coincided with renegotiating her Nike contract. She revealed that the company wanted to pay her 70 percent less, and refused to provide financial protection if she happened to have a dip in performance during or after pregnancy.
“Athletes are told to shut up and play. We are told that no one cares about our politics. We are told that we’re just entertainers, so run fast, jump high, and throw far. And don’t mess up. But pregnancy is not messing up; for women, it can and should be able to be part of a thriving professional athletic career,” Felix declared.
Now sponsored by Athleta, the women’s apparel brand which offers full maternity benefits, Felix recently spoke out again to say that in the midst of the contract negotiations, Nike asked her to participate in “female empowerment” ads. “My stomach dropped. I was like, this is just beyond disrespectful and tone-deaf,” she told Time magazine.
Felix is now the mother of a two-year-old girl named Camryn and founder of her own sportswear brand, Saysh. At age 35, she is one of three U.S. women who have qualified for the women’s 400-meter sprint in Tokyo. Her Olympic story is one of inclusion. But for Brianna McNeal, the sports world still has too far to go to make women’s lives livable. Shortly after her interview with the New York Times, her appeal against her suspension from her sport was denied.
More poignantly, shortly after her abortion, a troubling new virus began to spread around the world. The Olympic Games planned for 2020 were suddenly rescheduled because of COVID-19. McNeal was devastated by the unexpected postponement, she told the Times, because that meant she could have had her baby without missing the competition after all.
“I can’t imagine the pain of that realization for her,” says Pirrotta.