Local professor concerned pregnant athletes don’t know their rights

A retired nursing professor is concerned about women’s college sports and the ability of women to continue to play, especially following last year’s Supreme Court decision that overturned Roe v. Wade.

Wright State adjunct professor Elizabeth Sorensen, who worked with the NCAA to develop rules around scholarships and pregnancy in the 2000s, is now worried women playing college sports don’t know their rights, which could lead to health outcomes that hurt them and their baby.

“Athletes will conceal pain ... they will conceal medical conditions, sometimes. They will conceal injuries if they think that those things are a threat to their participation, or to their scholarship,” Sorensen said. “And for many female athletes, their scholarship may be the only way that they are permitted or capable of achieving a college education.”

Sorensen noted that while pregnant athletes can safely compete in sports, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists still recommends pregnant athletes be under a doctor’s care to ensure the mother’s body doesn’t overheat and blood pressure stays normal, which can cause complications.

In extreme circumstances, college women have concealed pregnancies, given birth and killed their babies. In 2007, a Bellarmine University golf team member was charged and convicted of killing her baby. As recently as 2017, a University of Illinois student was charged and pleaded guilty to killing her own baby.

Sorensen first notified the NCAA there was a problem with the rules around women in college sports in 2003. In 2009, the rules were changed to allow athletes to keep their scholarships, even in the event of injury or pregnancy.

Women have some protections under Title IX, which bars schools receiving federal funding from discriminating based on sex in education. But Sorensen said some private, faith-based colleges and universities have declared themselves exempt from those rules through the Office of Civil Rights.

“I am really concerned that individual athletes and their parents lack knowledge of Title IX protections and lack knowledge of whether or not the college that the student is attending has claimed itself exempt from parts of Title IX,” Sorensen said.

But she said she has some hope: a study she coauthored, published earlier this year, found that pregnant college athletes are more likely to seek help when given information about Title IX.

Sorensen was part of a panel last week from Ithaca College full of women discussing the impact of the Dobbs decision on female college athletes specifically. Other experts, including two attorneys from the National Women’s Law Center and a sports historian professor at Pennsylvania State University, said there are still legal questions with how college women are treated after this decision.

Bayliss Fiddiman, director of educational equity and senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center, said a journalist reached out to her the day of the Dobbs decision and asked what the decision might mean for college women. She says the organization is still looking into what is happening at the state and federal levels.

“This is a new territory,” Fiddiman said. “We are all asking the same question right now.”

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