Athletes often forced into heartbreaking decisions

It's a topic often ignored in women's locker rooms: student-athletes feeling forced to get abortions to keep their scholarships. Coaches and administrators aren't the only ones turning a blind eye; the NCAA is suspiciously silent on the subject as well.

Originally Published: May 12, 2007
By Lindsay Rovegno | ESPN

On the road that leads to Clemson, S.C., billboards sponsored by an anti-abortion group dot the highway with the phrase "Pregnant & Scared?" plastered in large letters. They are an ominous backdrop for Clemson University, where at least seven current or recently graduated student-athletes terminated their pregnancies, primarily because they were afraid of losing their athletic scholarships.

Outside the Lines: Pregnant Pause
"Outside the Lines: Pregnant Pause" will re-airs on Tuesday at 3:30 p.m. ET on ESPN. For more information, see the OTL Web site.

"I have a couple teammates that have had abortions due to the fact that they knew they weren't going to get their scholarship back," said a female student-athlete at Clemson, who asked not to be identified. "But like an actual teammate having a child, and coming back and earning a scholarship, that's a situation that hasn't happened."

In the fall of 2006, that same athlete discovered she was pregnant for the second time. She said her first thoughts were for her future.

"How could this happen?" she said, shaking her head in disbelief. "My career was going to end. I'm not going to go to the Olympics or get to finish my four years. I was just like, 'This is a dead-end road. You're not going anywhere else.'"

Searching for answers, she said she turned to a Clemson administrator.

"She was just like, 'You know that's going to be hard? Everything that you got … gone,'" the athlete said, recounting her conversation. "And she was like, 'Just think about your options. You know Coach isn't going to give you back your scholarship just like that. If she finds out and if you decide to keep it, that's gone.'"

Meet Cassandra Harding.

The student-athlete said she was asked to sign a team document prior to the 2005 season that stated: "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."

"There was actually a policy about loss of scholarship, loss of privileges due to pregnancy," she said.

Remembering the administrator's counsel and the previous year's team policy, the athlete said the fear of losing her scholarship played a large role in her decision to have a second abortion.

"On a scale from 1 to 10, it was like a 9," she said. "It had a big, big part in my decision, because that's the first thing I thought about, I'm losing my scholarship."

Loreto Jackson, Director of Student-Athlete Performance at Clemson, said the school does not currently have a policy in which grant-in-aid money can be affected by an athlete's pregnancy.

"I regret that student-athletes felt that their decision was colored by what they perceived as a lack of support in the past," Jackson said.

When asked how a document like the one signed by the athlete could be allowed to exist, she responded: "Honestly, I can't answer that. It was incorrect and it was in the past."

Jackson said the team clause addressing the modification of grant-in-aid money when an athlete becomes pregnant was removed last year, and Clemson has since started to educate athletes that a scholarship will not be taken away because of a pregnancy.

But the Clemson athlete who aborted her pregnancy is not alone.

What is Title IX?
Title IX is a federal law that does not permit discrimination on the basis of sex -- including discrimination on the basis of pregnancy.

Related links:
NCAA FAQ on Title IX
Memphis document, NCAA statement

Over the past four months, ESPN contacted hundreds of college administrators and athletes across the country -- a rower at Cincinnati, a track athlete at Kentucky, a volleyball player at UCLA, an Arkansas basketball player, just to name a few, to find out how athletes' pregnancies are handled on campus. While the issue is rarely discussed publicly, athlete pregnancies occur more frequently than one might expect.

"If we talk to student-athletes themselves, they suggest that it happens, that it's definitely not a zero-frequency event and they all have stories about their teammates or someone on another team," said Beth Sorensen, a professor in Wright State University's college of nursing and the author of the school's pregnancy policy. Sorensen has been raising awareness on this issue since 2003.

But when it comes to the topic of pregnancy, few college athletes are receiving the same message from administrators and coaches. Most schools do not have a set policy on pregnancy and most athletes describe an atmosphere in which the topic is rarely discussed.

"If we talk to athletics administrators, directors of athletics, some of them say they don't need a policy because they don't have this problem, so there's sort of a head-in-the-sand philosophy," said Sorensen, a former gymnast at Ohio State. Sorensen urges schools to provide a supportive environment that will help pregnant athletes make the most informed decisions. The policy at Wright State basically establishes a team of individuals, including the coach, team physician, an obstetrician/gynecologist, athletic trainer and a psychologist, to help guide the pregnant athlete.

For many athletes, the fear of losing their scholarship due to pregnancy is real.

Beth Sorensen weighs in on the issue of athletes and pregnancy.

When Cassandra Harding enrolled at the University of Memphis in 2003, she was the first member of her family to go to college. She knew a track scholarship was her ticket to future financial stability. What she didn't know was that same scholarship would be the root of her consternation when it was rescinded two years later.

Harding now lives in an off-campus apartment in Memphis; one corner of her living room is piled with a collection of brightly colored toys. Seven months ago, the toys would have been strewn throughout the apartment, but for now, the toys simply serve as a constant reminder of her 22-month-old daughter Assiah, who is 600 miles away in Texas with Harding's mother.

For Harding, life became complicated in October 2004, when she was surprised with the news that she was pregnant.

"First thing is like, 'Oh my God, I'm going to lose my scholarship. What am I going to do?'" the Memphis triple-jumper said. "The only thing I was thinking of was track."

Harding said her first inclination was to have an abortion to save her scholarship.

"Me and my boyfriend were going to try to terminate, but when I went in, I found out I was four months pregnant and it was too late," Harding said. "I just started crying and I lost my scholarship. I let my teammates down, I let my coach down, I let my parents down and I just didn't know what I was going to do from there."

In joining the Memphis track team, Harding had signed a contract that listed incidents that would result in "immediate dismissal and nonrenewal of scholarship." Pregnancy was one of the infractions. Harding said she was required to sign contracts like this before every season.

"For the track team, basically I guess the coaches make it, like if you don't go to class, if you miss so many days, if you get into a fight or if you get pregnant, it's like an automatic loss of scholarship," Harding said. "At the time I was like, 'I'm not going to get pregnant, so let me just go ahead and sign it.'"

But the 22-year-old track-and-field athlete would come to regret her decision to sign the contract.

When the Memphis track coaches found out Harding was pregnant, they deferred to the contract and chose not to renew her scholarship the following season.

ESPN requested interviews with Harding's current Memphis track coach, Kevin Robinson, and Brenda Cash-Calhoun, the former coach (and track team's current director of operations) whom Harding said was responsible for rescinding her scholarship when she became pregnant. Memphis declined the requests.

In July 2005, when Assiah was born, Harding's life quickly became a whirlwind of activities, in large part because of the financial burden of losing her scholarship.

"July 26 I had Assiah, and on my way back I was like, 'OK, I'm going to have to get a job. I'm going to have to find a baby sitter. I'm going to have to do this, I'm going to have to do that because I have to go to school,'" Harding said. "I wound up getting a job with Federal Express working, oh gosh, I'm working there about 11 o'clock to possibly 4, 5 o'clock in the morning. I had 8 o'clock class to probably about 2 o'clock. At 2:30, I had practice and then I had night classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 5:30 to 8, and I just really had no time to sleep I was just around-the-clock working."

As she continued to train with the team to earn back her scholarship, Harding had to juggle school, work, track practice and caring for Assiah. But when Harding's boyfriend left for the Army, her hectic schedule became too much and her mother, who lives in Killeen, Texas, had to care for Assiah until Harding could graduate.

"When she first left, I was just like, 'Oh my goodness, I'm not gonna be able to do this.' Her dad was gone and she was gone and I just had an empty house," Harding said, her upper right arm bearing a prominent tattoo with Assiah's name. "I was able to cope with it, but it was real, real, real hard. It still is hard that she's not here."

The NCAA's stance on the treatment of pregnant student-athletes

Harding eventually earned back 75 percent of her scholarship for her senior year, but some of the hardships she faced might have been avoided under the protection of Title IX.

"I think if an institution is applying a piece of paper that an athlete signs, if they're applying it to female athletes and not to male athletes, there is clearly discrimination going on," said Sorensen.

"The regulations say very clearly that institutions cannot discriminate against students on the basis of pregnancy," said Deborah Brake, an associate professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh who specializes in gender discrimination. "It's a blatant violation of Title IX. It is unquestionably a violation of Title IX."

Title IX states that institutions receiving federal funds cannot discriminate against any person on the basis of sex, and the law also mandates that those institutions "shall not exclude any student from its education program or activity … on the basis of such student's pregnancy, childbirth, false pregnancy, termination of pregnancy or recovery therefrom."

Brake added: "It clearly says that an outright exclusion based on pregnancy is illegal and there's no question about that."

And while the 458-page NCAA Division I manual has rules governing almost everything from the logos on team socks to meal money on road trips, when it comes to athletes and pregnancy, it offers little guidance.

Sorensen said: "I found that the NCAA bylaws were unclear and in some cases they conflicted with each other and certainly they don't give us the answers that we needed about what do we do for a pregnant athlete?"

As a result, the NCAA could be leaving its member institutions open to Title IX violations.

"We look to the NCAA to lead us in solving problems and I would say that NCAA legislation which leaves an institution possibly liable for violating Title IX might not serve the institution the best," Sorensen said.

"This is an umbrella organization that has very detailed rules for governing sports, very detailed rules, and so to be, at best, silent on this issue and, at worst, pointing toward a Title IX violation is inexcusable," Brake noted.

ESPN requested on-camera interviews with NCAA officials, and while our requests were declined, we were told in an e-mail: "… the issue is primarily one involving individuals and their campuses, and all decisions related to financial aid and medical exemptions are institutional."

"For the NCAA to throw up its hands and essentially say, 'We're being neutral here, it's left to our members' judgment,' isn't taking responsibility for how its policies are signaling to institutions that maybe it's OK to take away scholarships for athletes who get pregnant when it's not OK under Title IX," Brake said.

Since Title IX was enacted in 1972, there's been a push to create an equal playing field for women, but to some, the reality is that society is following a model of athletics that has been fashioned for males.

"Gender equity in sports should not just be 'add women and stir,'" Brake said. "I think there is a tendency for institutions to think that, 'OK, here's what we give to our men's teams and so let's just have some parity here that we're giving the women's teams the same thing,' and that's not really the recipe for meaningful equality in sports."

Lindsay Rovegno is a producer for "Outside the Lines." Reporter Julie Foudy and producer Arty Berko also contributed to this story.