When her soccer team returned to the field in June, Amy Rodriguez had a familiar problem. Alone in Utah with her two sons, she needed to get back to work but had no way to hire child care help because of the pandemic.
So Rodriguez did what only felt normal after years of balancing her professional soccer career with being a mother: She set up her 3- and 6-year-old sons with blankets, toys and an iPad on the sideline and jogged out for her workouts.
The boys were used to being patient. But occasionally Rodriguez had to step away from training with her National Women’s Soccer League team, the Utah Royals, to deal with a bloody nose or a sibling squabble.
“I’ve had to talk it over with them,” she said. “‘This is mom’s job. You have to work with me.‘”
As American professional sports return this summer inside so-called bubble environments that limit outsiders, the challenges of parenting in a pandemic — already felt by health care workers, first-responders and stressed-out families — have hit home for dozens of elite athletes, and for mothers in particular.
Children and families are not allowed in men’s league bubbles, partly out of concerns over the size of the operation and its cost. But those decisions, and the different ones in women’s leagues, also are a reflection of how American society largely treats child-rearing as the responsibility of women even as the workload takes a toll on their careers and mental health.
Some NBA and Major League Soccer players have cited family reasons for staying away as their sports have returned. But Rodriguez, her NWSL colleagues and their counterparts in the WNBA often have less of a choice; they play in leagues in which athletes rarely enjoy the kind of elaborate (and expensive) support systems required to excel as both athletes and parents. That is why the unusual accommodations they are seeing since moving from team-run training camps to league-arranged lockdown sites have been a welcome surprise.
NWSL players say it is the first time they have seen the league make real efforts for mothers. A similar shift is underway in the WNBA’s bubble in Florida, thanks to gains in the league’s new collective bargaining agreement with its players.
“It shocked me that they even reached out to us,” said North Carolina Courage forward Jessica McDonald, who took her 8-year-old son to the NWSL’s summer tournament in Utah. McDonald said she had been reassured early on that she and her son would be comfortable and safe. But she also had another thought: “It was like, really? Where has this support been my entire career?”
In both leagues, players’ children have become fixtures: sitting courtside in their strollers for practices, living in hotels with their mother’s team, cheering at games inside empty arenas.
But Rodriguez and other players said the yearslong balancing act of sports and motherhood has been made easier because of the lengths leagues have gone to in order to help: paid caregivers, special living quarters and coronavirus testing protocols tailored to young children. There are even playgrounds in the bubbles; in the NWSL’s case, one is a brightly colored jungle gym just steps from the field where the games are being played that has become the event’s breakthrough social media star.
As with so much in the coronavirus outbreak, though, the bubbles have also illuminated a stark inequality: the tiny numbers of women who are able to have children as professional athletes, and the sacrifices required of them when they do.
While hundreds of NBA and MLS players have children, only a tiny fraction of NWSL players do: Rodriguez is one of five mothers playing in the tournament. In the WNBA’s bubble, there are six mothers with children, according to players’ union officials, and a similar number chose not to bring their children with them.
The isolated environments have meant enormous sacrifice for men’s pros, too, of course. Portland Trail Blazers guard Trevor Ariza opted out of the NBA’s games in Florida, reportedly to take advantage of a one-month visitation window with his son. Two of Major League Soccer’s biggest stars, Carlos Vela and Javier Hernández, came to different conclusions: Vela is skipping the league’s matches to stay home with his pregnant wife, while Hernández agreed to play after his team arranged to fly in family to support his wife in similar circumstances.
But in the women’s leagues, challenges that have long been common — juggling child care and concerns about their children’s health inside intense athletic pressure chambers — have been magnified. Many say the problems are nothing new.
Candace Parker, the veteran star of the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks, has moved into a two-bedroom apartment with her 11-year-old daughter, Lailaa, in order to play. To make it work, Parker said she had to piece together child care help from family members over the 40-plus days she expected to be in sporting lockdown.
But there was never any question, Parker said, that Lailaa would come. “She had her bags packed before I did,” Parker said. “It’s always been that way where I’m better when she’s here. I don’t think the Sparks would want me without her.”
Terri Jackson, the president of the WNBA players’ union, said that as the plans for a Florida bubble were being drawn up, the league made it clear that it would give priority to mothers, offering them their choice of housing and taking care of some costs that other players are expected to cover.
That was a significant step forward, Jackson said.
“If you took a historical look across the league, it made you ask: If this is a women’s sports league, where are the moms?” she said. “You wonder, how many players that are looking to become moms have we lost?
“We should have more Candaces — and Lailaas — in the league.”
Unlike the WNBA, which is in its third decade, the NWSL is still finding its financial footing in its eighth season, and salaries are still comparatively low — $20,000 to $60,000 a year.
But mothers in the league praised the proactive moves taken by the new commissioner, Lisa Baird, who took charge of the NWSL in February after it had been leaderless for several years. Baird is also a mother, with a college-age daughter who, on the league’s shoestring budget, has been helping with child care inside the league’s bubble in Herriman, Utah, near Salt Lake City.
Even before the NWSL’s announcement that it would return to the field this summer, Baird held a conference call with the mothers in the league, asking them what they and their children would need to take part. Getting buy-in from the mothers was a key part of getting the players association on board, a league representative said.
“They’re professional athletes, and they take their jobs as moms very seriously,” Baird said. “For them, it wasn’t, ‘Make this special concession.’ It was: ‘This is what I need. This is part of my job.’”
In the NWSL’s Utah complex, mothers have been allowed to bring along a caregiver. McDonald and Rodriguez are living with their children in an apartment complex, but Stephanie Cox, a player for OL Reign, elected to stay in the team hotel with her daughters, 7 and 4.
There’s a pool, but most important, her teammates and team staff members are built-in entertainment for her daughters, Cox said. In the hotel, Reign players have been the victims of her older daughter’s pranks; in one, Welsh superstar Jess Fishlock was tricked into taking a bite of an Oreo filled with toothpaste.
“I’m too tired to be that for them all the time,” Cox said.
The simple fact that the league offered to help came as a surprise to McDonald. For most of her professional career, she said, she felt as if the league didn’t care that she was also a mother.
Every trade had meant scrambling to assemble a whole new support system for her son, Jeremiah — six teams, six cities and six baby sitters in five years, all on a salary that was less than minimum wage. In the offseason, she packed boxes in an Amazon warehouse to pay for child care that allowed her to train.
This weekend, McDonald and her North Carolina teammates will begin the knockout round of the Challenge Cup. As the top seed, the Courage are expected to reach the final, success that will only extend her stay with Jeremiah.
But like Rodriguez and Parker and others, she is hoping the bar has been raised for good.
“I’m hoping and praying that the way they’re treating us is going to carry into our future seasons,” McDonald said.