While nearly everyone who chooses to juggle a career and parenting faces difficult challenges, as I mentioned in my post about Griswold v. Connecticut, athletes face a particularly tough balancing act because the window for their career is so much shorter than for other careers and because the best time for childbearing coincides with the height of one’s athletic abilities. I also alluded to this issue when I wrote about how Malaysian rifler Nur Suryani will be competing in this year’s Olympics while 33 weeks pregnant. But what about male athletes? In my view, we must encourage new fathers to participate in the birth of their child, for both the benefit of the fathers and because doing so sets a precedent of fathers helping do the work of raising children, a task that often largely falls on mothers.
(I almost wrote a “thankless task” there because the parent that stays home to care for children is rarely compensated for doing so, despite the fact that our country and our employers benefit from the raising of the next generation of citizens and workers. If you don’t believe me, just look at areas of Europe where the birth rate is dropping rapidly; in those places, governments are attaching monetary incentives to having children. To make it not a thankless task, require employers to provide paid parental leave in recognition of that fact that raising a child is a job in our society like any other).
For male athletes who play professional team sports, their absence from their team affects not only their own careers, but the careers of every player on their team and the happiness of entire fan bases, which can encompass large cities and multiple states. And so there can be a huge amount of pressure on players not to miss a game. Chris Bosh got heat (had to) for even considering missing Game 3 of the first round of the NBA playoffs this year to be there for the birth of his child. He didn’t miss it, and the Heat went on to win the championship. Probably the most notorious critic is Dallas Observer writer Richie Whitt, who wrote when Colby Lewis became the first baseball player to take paternity leave, “In Game 2, Colby Lewis is scheduled to start after missing his last regular turn in the rotation because — I’m not making this up — his wife, Jenny, was giving birth in California. To the couple’s second child. . . . If it was a first child, maybe. But a second child causing a player to miss a game? Ludicrous.” Less inflamatory but still a little jarring was Mets manager Terry Collins’ reaction after Jason Bay took paternity leave: “Twenty-five years ago nobody left. Nobody went to weddings. You played because the season was six months long or five months long and you stayed. But the rules changed and that’s part of the Basic Agreement now, but they got this rule which helps you so you don’t lose a player and you can keep a core roster. We adjust to it. (But) I’m sure the wives are happier.”
Scheduling and the length of seasons play a big role in the discussion of paternity leave in professional team sports. In baseball, starting pitchers have some flexibility because they only pitch every 5 days. Earlier this year Mets pitcher Chris Young was activitated from the disabled list (he was recovering from shoulder surgery), pitched one game, and then was placed on the paternity list. He didn’t miss a start so it didn’t really matter, but the media criticized the notion of paternity leave anyway. In football, missing a game is a huge deal because the season is only 16 games long, but they are played once a week, so a player could conceivably time his leave and miss only a practice or two. The hockey and basketball seasons have about half as many games as baseball, but they are still pretty long and grueling, with a lot of travel and time away from home.
Paid parental leave is an issue that interests me outside of sports, and in fact the United States is one of three countries in the entire world that doesn’t require employers to provide paid parental leave, so I wanted to see what the big four professional sports offer. It should be noted that all four sports have strong players’ unions who negotiate collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) every few years. Unlike many of us who are not in unions, players are in a strong position to advocate for rights from their employers.
Major League Baseball’s 2012-2016 CBA provides: ”N. Family and Medical Leave Act. The Clubs will comply with the requirements of the Family and Medical Leave Act (29 U.S.C. 2601 et seq.) and will allow Players to utilize the Bereavement, Medical Emergency and Paternity leaves provided in Major League Rules 2(n) and (o). Medical Emergency and Paternity leaves shall run concurrently with any leave available under the Family and Medical Leave Act.” Major League Rule 2(o) addresses paternity leave, but I couldn’t find the text of it on the internet. (Here’s the 2008 Major League Rules, which only has 2(n), the provision addressing bereavement). However FanGraphs reported: “The basic procedure for putting a player on the paternity list is simple: The club submits a written request to the commissioner’s office for a player whose child’s birth is imminent or has occurred within the previous 48 hours. Players can miss between one and three days.”
Being a baseball fan first and foremost, I foolishly assumed that football, basketball and hockey would have similar provisions and therefore the purpose of this post would be to compare and contrast the policy for each sport and analyze, after accounting for each sport’s schedule, which leave policy was best for the players. But the other sports have nothing.
So why don’t the other sports have paternity leave? Length and intensity of schedule maybe. Maybe paternity leave discussions were tabled in football and basketball in lieu of other pressing issues that consumed recent offseasons and, in basketball, led to a lockout shortened season. Maybe, as some suggest, there is no paternity leave policy so as to encourage players to plan their pregnancies around the off-season. Certainly they are already encouraged to do so, since the three days MLB offers are not nearly enough time to bond with a newborn and help one’s wife get adjusted to having a(nother) child. But this suggestion is also a simplistic one that ignores the fact that conceiving a child can take any number or days, weeks or months, and it also ignores the fact that the player’s wife might need to plan their pregnancy around her career. Say a baseball player’s wife is a teacher. The best time for her to give birth is over the summer during baseball season. Say a basketball player’s wife plays in the WNBA. Since the WNBA plays during the summer and the NBA plays during the winter, the best time for her to give birth is during the NBA season.
Nevertheless, MLB has forged new ground by offering paternity leave to its players. And for all the hoopla that surrounded Colby Lewis as the first baseball player to take paternity leave, it now seems like for the most part players take the leave with little issue or fanfare, and everyone has accepted it as part of the sport. For the sake of the players, their wives, and to set an example for all employers, I hope that the other three big professional team sports follow suit.