News & Commentary

July 17, 2020

Rund Khayyat

Rund Khayyat is a student at Harvard Law School.

As American sports leagues begin returning to the fields, and in many cases to isolated coronavirus “bubbles,” the WNBA and National Women’s Sports League (NSWL) are taking significant measures to support female athletes with children. The WNBA players’ union said that as the WNBA drafted its plans for the Florida bubble in which players would remain for the season, the league prioritized mothers by providing them paid caregivers, special living quarters, and coronavirus testing protocols made for children. Similarly, the NWSL Players Association only agreed to support the summer season when the league secured the participation of its mothers. Though the NWSL is younger than the WNBA and less financially resourced, NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird worked with mothers in the league to ensure that their needs were fulfilled, sometimes even providing childcare herself. In both leagues, players’ children have become fixtures of the summer games, cheering in empty arenas, sitting courtside during practices, and living in the hotels with the teams. 

Though the athletes welcome the new assistance, some told the NYT that they have faced motherhood challenges throughout their careers with no prior support.  The coronavirus has only magnified the long-existing challenges that athletes with children, and particularly female athletes, face and the toll that parenting can take on their athletic careers and mental health. As a result, mothers may have felt discouraged from staying in professional sports — while hundreds of NBA and Major League Soccer (MLS) players have children, only 5 mothers play in the NWSL, and only about 12 play in the WNBA. 

Shedding light on another challenge that females can face in the sports industry, 15 former female employees of the Washington Football Team (previously known as the Redskins) claimed that they endured relentless sexual harassment and verbal abuse from staffers on the team. The 15 women, as well as over 40 current and former employees, told the Washington Post about a culture of abuse spanning from 2006-2019, which they claimed top executives ignored, and in some cases, condoned. For example, the Post published screenshots of inappropriate, sexual text messages that Richard Mann II, the team’s Assistant Director of Pro Personnel, sent to a female employee. The majority of the women spoke anonymously because they remain bound by nondisclosure agreements that threaten legal retribution for any negative speech about the club. The Team has refused to release the women from the NDAs, and has not responded to the allegations with concrete action besides hiring a law firm to investigate the allegations. 

Virginia just became the first state to adopt coronavirus-related workplace safety regulations after the federal government failed to promulgate enforceable measures. Labor organizations and worker advocates have backed Virginia’s move, emphasizing that the state had to fill the void left by Trump’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the federal workplace safety agency, which refused to promulgate enforceable regulations necessary to protect essential workers during the pandemic. Despite national rebuke by workers’ groups, OSHA has issued only a “coronavirus-protection guidance” for employers with no penalty or enforcement mechanism. Virginia’s temporary standards, which will remain in place for at least 6 months, require businesses to implement measures to protect workers, including prohibiting workers suspected of having the virus from working, promptly notifying workers of possible exposure to infected co-workers, and implementing new mandates regarding physical distancing, protective gear, and sanitation. Companies who violate the policies could face penalties of up to $130,000. 

Due to OSHA’s inaction, workers groups say employers have only ignored covid-safety recommendations, endangering their workers and the public at large. For instance, though thousands of workers filed complaints with the agency alleging that their employers failed to implement basic protective measures, the agency has issued a citation for only one of the complaints. Virginia’s regulations will benefit workers with key protections that employers must implement and provide a blueprint for states to follow. Oregon, for instance, expects to draft similar rules by the end of the month. 

Finally, as the economy begins its slow rebound, the number of Americans filing for unemployment remained steady last week, which indicates that challenges to economic recovery are multiplying as coronavirus cases surge and states pause or reverse reopenings. Conditions may worsen because various sectors of the economy continue to struggle with depressed demand: American Airlines and United Airlines, for instance, have warned of tens of thousands of more layoffs by the end of the year. Economists also warn of the potential for “total economic devastation” if Congress allows its supplemental jobless benefits programs to expire without passing more coronavirus relief measures. 

Meanwhile, the White House signaled to Congress on Thursday that any coronavirus aid bill must include a payroll tax cut, threatening to drag out the already contentious negotiations. Republicans have raised concerns that the taxcut would take time to implement and delay getting money into the pockets of Americans with jobs. Democrats have stressed that a taxcut wouldn’t help the millions of jobless Americans, or those who do not receive compensation through paychecks.  So far, Republicans have not formally rejected the measure, but Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has only expressed his desire to keep liability protections for employers and extended unemployment assistance, with no mention of tax cuts, in the GOP legislation.

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