For pregnant athletes, a unique circumstance

Hiding a pregnancy. Playing right up until the due date. Many college athletes see these among their only options.

By Greg Auman, Times Staff Writer
Published February 24, 2008

One in an occasional series on the history, issues and personalities of women's basketball leading to the Final Four on April 6 and 8 in Tampa.

Ashley Shields prayed.

Each time she headed onto the court for those six games in 2004 with Northwest Mississippi Community College, she asked that nothing happen to her baby.

Her unborn baby.

Shields was eight months pregnant, but only her family knew.

"I kept it from my coach," she told WNBA.com. "The only people that knew were my family. ... I was taking charges and they would turn their heads. ...

"Before I went on the court, I would just pray, and play like I wasn't pregnant. I wasn't even thinking about it. It wasn't on my mind, and I was still playing well."

Shields' story turned out well with a healthy son, Christopher. But she isn't alone. Several athletes have concealed pregnancies out of fear they'd lose their scholarship.

The NCAA passed legislation last month to assure that a woman's scholarship isn't reduced because of pregnancy, partially prompted by media reports and recent examples of women concealing pregnancies including:

- Syracuse's Fantasia Goodwin playing nearly all of last season pregnant before telling coach Quentin Hillsman the night before the last game. He held her out of that game and she delivered her daughter on April 19.

- Louisville's Connie Neal played 11 games in 2003 while as much as eight months pregnant before finally telling coaches. Her last game was Dec. 20, and she gave birth to her daughter Jan. 31, returning to practice four weeks later, in time for the end of the season.

- USF guard Rae Rae Sayles played five games in 2003 before it was learned she was pregnant; after taking a year off, she announced in 2004 she was leaving the team to focus on her daughter.

"The big thing we've discovered is that athletes can feel like they have to hide it, for fear of losing their scholarship," said Steve Walz, USF's assistant athletic director for sports medicine. "For us, the big thing is 'If this does occur, please feel comfortable coming to us.' It's not a bad thing. Letting someone know is best for you, your body and your baby."

It's surprisingly easy for a basketball player to conceal a pregnancy and continue playing at a high level.

"They can hide it pretty good, and it still blows me away, reading about athletes who are seven or eight months pregnant and nobody knows," Walz said. "It scares you to death as an athletic trainer, because if someone gets hit hard on the court and falls, to find out there that she's pregnant, that would be quite shocking."

With proper supervision and care from doctors, an athlete can safely participate in college athletics in the early stages of pregnancy. Elizabeth Sorensen, assistant professor at the College of Nursing and Health and NCAA faculty athletics representative at Wright State Ohio, said research shows that in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy, a fetus is so small and still protected by a mother's pelvic bones that the risk of injury to mother or child is minimal.

No secrets

Florida State guard Shante Williams can understand how some might try to hide a pregnancy out of embarrassment, if nothing else.

But Williams is glad she took advantage of the support system her teammates and coach provided.

"I told my teammates first because I felt they needed to know, and then I sat down with (coach Sue Semrau)," Williams said. "... I knew I had a high-risk pregnancy. I wasn't willing to risk losing my child just to bounce a basketball."

Williams, who took a medical redshirt in 2004-05, looks forward to playing her final home game Saturday and hearing 3-year-old son George saying, "Shoot, Mom, shoot!" from the stands.

High-profile mom

Brynn Cameron looks into the stands now during games, finds her 16-month-old son, Cole, and has to hold back tears.

"I see him and I almost cry out there," the Southern California junior said Friday. "Being a mom and an athlete, it's honestly the best thing ever."

Cameron may be the most well-known mother in college basketball, if only because Cole's father is former USC quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart, now with the NFL's Arizona Cardinals.

Cameron was sidelined with a hip injury in 2006 when she found out she was pregnant; she took the 2006-07 season off to be with Cole, returning to the Trojans as a 3-point threat off the bench this season. She understands the despair other players might feel, unsure of how to handle an unexpected and dramatic life change.

"I can see them saying, 'My future's over,' when things don't go as planned," Cameron said. "I remember thinking, 'Oh, my God, I don't know anyone who's gone through this before.' But it's not like it doesn't happen."

Cameron said she gets calls and e-mails from other players who are pregnant, and takes pride in being able to help them through a difficult transition, to give them the positive reinforcement she got from her family and teammates.

"I've gotten to talk to a lot of girls, and I want to be an example for them," Cameron said. "It's not easy to deal with, but I'm going to make the most of it."

Greg Auman can be reached at auman@sptimes.com.