December 9, 2009

Pregnancy raises participation issue in Texas

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Should a pregnant girl be allowed to compete in high school sports?

And whose decision should it be anyway?

These questions and a whole lot more are playing out at Arlington Heights High School in Fort Worth, Texas.

Mackenzie McCollum, a 17-year old volleyball player, filed a Title IX complaint against the school earlier this fall - alleging she was discriminated against when the school learned she was pregnant.

Prominent doctors - not to mention her own ob-gyn - said it's OK to play.

Her lawyer says preventing her from playing is a classic case of sexism - not to mention a violation of federal law.

The school (and the Fort Worth Independent School District) isn't so sure. They have declined all media requests, citing pending litigation, but released a statement saying their concern is for the "safety and rights" of all students.

McCollum has some support in the community, but don't think all of her fellow students are behind her. Recent Facebook groups appear to be in support of the school and the coach - and against McCollum.

It has become such an issue that just this week McCollum amended her complaint against the school, saying the school's actions has led to harassment and bullying.

Lara S. Kaufmann, senior counsel with the National Women's Law Center in Washington, D.C., said the situation is a matter of people simply not knowing the law.

"We see lots of cases like this," she said. "Too many schools are unaware that Title IX applies to pregnant and parenting students."

Kaufmann was stunned by the school's reaction.

"They're really attacking her for being pregnant in the first place and choosing to continue playing volleyball," she said. "When a student is going through a difficult time, the last thing they need is to be intimidated or embarrassed. They really need support."

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McCollum, who is due in the spring, went to her doctor - Jay Herd, a Fort Worth-based ob-gyn - in October to see if she could be cleared to play this fall.

Herd agreed to let her play, but said she should have "no contact."

That's where the problems started.

The school deemed that volleyball was a contact sport and wrote a letter to Mackenzie's family saying she would not be allowed to compete.

After that, Herd then changed his recommendation, clearing her to play without restrictions.

McCollum returned to the court but the issue was far from over.

While she was away from the team, she alleges head coach Jack Warren told the other players of her condition - and then greatly reduced her playing time upon return. (The team's season ended in November).

Both issues were upsetting to McCollum.

"She was about 10 weeks pregnant when this started," Kaufmann said. "She wasn't showing at all. The coach told the whole team she was pregnant, which she was not ready to do.

"When she did get the full medical clearance, they limited her playing time considerably."

McCollum told ESPN her pregnancy was not an issue on the court.

"I've had times where I've been short of breath on the court after a long play, but that's [it]. I've had that even when I wasn't pregnant. But I've never actually felt sick while playing."

She said she knew it would be a struggle but felt volleyball would help her.

"I felt like this was the one thing that I could count on ... that everything would be OK and everything would work out and then that, too, was taken away, so it made me feel like I was kind of left with nothing to really count on."

The McCollums filed an addendum to their complaint earlier this month. They said the school's treatment of her has led to bullying and harassment. Most specifically, they were upset when the school aired the ESPN segment on her during some classroom periods.

This, Kaufmann said, brought a hostile reaction from fellow students.

"That led to verbal abuse in the hallways," Kaufmann said. "People threatened her with physical harm. They demeaned her and degraded her because she filed a complaint."

While Kaufmann acknowledge the segment was easily accessible to all; she said it should not have been shown in school.

"It's inappropriate for them to bring that into the classroom," she said. "It was not necessary or curriculum-related. And they should have known by reaction to the comments on the story on ESPN - many of which were extremely hostile and offensive - that there could have been a negative reaction.

"The school needs to take action to protect her from harassment."

While Kaufmann said some students have been supportive, others seem to have rallied around the coach - or, arguably, against McCollum. A number of Facebook groups have been established. One has nearly 500 members - not to mention lots of comments critical of McCollum, according to a story in the Dallas Morning News.

"Way to go coach," one commenter wrote. "What kind of idiot would want to play volleyball while pregnant anyway?"

Another is entitled: "I support coach Warren and the FWISD." Then there's one entitled "tired of Mackenzie McCollum," which describes its purpose this way:

"If you are tired of all this stupid mackenzie mccollum stuff, please click here to join!! ITS HER FAULT NO ONE ELSES!!"

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Opinions about whether pregnant women should partake in strenuous athletic activity have changed recently. A general guideline: You should continue any athletic activity you did before you were pregnant - just don't add anything new to your routines.

Pregnant professional athletes are becoming part of the mainstream.

Olympic beach volleyball gold medalist Kerri Walsh and WNBA star Candace Parker both had babies earlier this year. And while they continued to train while pregnant, they did not compete.

LPGA player Catriona Matthew did, winning a tournament in January (the Brazil Cup) when she was five months pregnant.

Christie Rampone's efforts were even more impressive.

Rampone, a longtime member of the women's soccer national team and recognized as one of the first "soccer moms," was hailed last summer after she led her team, Sky Blue, to the inaugural women's professional soccer championship as both a starting defender and the team's head coach. Later on, she announced she was pregnant with her second child during the season, too.

Dr. Raul Artal, the chairman of obstetrics, gynecology and women's health at Saint Louis University in St. Louis who has researched this area for more than three decades, told ESPN pregnancy should not be a reason to stop competing.

"I strongly believe pregnancy should not be a state of confinement," he said. "If there are no complications, and a woman is willing to continue to train, she can."

Kaufmann said the treatment could have cost McCollum potential college scholarships.

McCollum, who will graduate in December, is a strong player; she was named the top setter in her district.

The Department of Education is reviewing the complaint. If it agrees that McCollum's rights were violated, it can threaten to withhold funding from the school unless it adopts new policies.

The Fort Worth Independent School District is confident it has done no wrong, writing in an e-mail statement:

"The Fort Worth Independent School District is restricted by law from discussing specific cases involving students. However, we believe our foremost concern through the entirety of this episode has been for the safety and the rights of the student. We strongly contend neither the student's rights, district policy, state or federal law has been violated."

The bigger issue, however, is setting a precedent. Her mom, Barbara Horton, told ABC news she wants to change the image officials have of pregnant athletes.

"My goal is for them to change their policies to include pregnant athletes," Horton said, "to nurture pregnant athletes, and to make sure that these athletes are successful."

Kaufmann said McCollum's case is about much more than just playing time.

"Far too many pregnant students drop out because of these types of barriers that are hard to overcome," she said. "(Schools) need to take steps to keep them there. At minimum, make sure they are not harassed or discriminated against. Athletics helps keep students tied to school.

"In Mackenzie's case, she's and honor student who clearly is going to graduate. In other cases, if students are on the edge, this could pull them out."

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