Newlin Vatansever’s story shows how far we still have to go in supporting female athletes.
Last October, four-time WNBA All-Star Skylar Diggins-Smith publicly criticized her team, the Dallas Wings, for what she called “limited resources to help me be successful mentally/physically” during her pregnancy and after her son was born in April 2019.
“Having no support from your own organization is unfortunate,” she tweeted. “… I played the ENTIRE season pregnant [in 2018]! All star, and led league (top 3-5) in [minutes per game]….didn’t tell a soul.”
The Wings disputed Diggins-Smith’s allegations, noting that they had paid her full salary and reserved a roster spot for her in 2019 even though the league’s collective bargaining agreement (CBA) at the time did not require either. (The league recently announced a new CBA that requires teams to pay players their full salary while they are on pregnancy leave.)
Halfway around the world, Kristen Newlin Vatansever could relate to Diggins-Smith’s sentiments. “I can certainly understand that,” she told High Post Hoops from Turkey, where she is currently playing. “… [Teams] say they care about the player, but if a player can’t produce on the court, their attitudes change very quickly. … It’s unfortunate because [pregnancy can be] the happiest moment in a player’s life, but we don’t get that reciprocation from what’s supposed to be our family in our teammates and coaches and [general managers].”
Newlin Vatansever, 34, has played in Turkey since she graduated from Stanford in 2008, including on the Turkish national team for several years as a naturalized citizen. She met and married her husband, Chicago Sky assistant coach Emre Vatansever, while she was playing and he was coaching in Turkey. In November 2018, she gave birth to twins, and thirteen months later, she returned to the court to play for Elazig Il Ozel Idare in the Turkish Women’s Basketball Super League (KBSL).
Like many couples in professional sports, Newlin Vatansever and her husband had debated when would be the best time to have children, taking into account her basketball career and their schedules, which send the family to Turkey in the winters and Chicago in the summers. She wanted to play professionally for a few more years, and the decision came down to having kids relatively quickly or waiting until retirement. Newlin Vatansever explained her thinking at the time: “Now’s the time where I can try to have a kid and still feel like I’m young enough to come back and play a few more years. If I waited, even a year or two, I would probably feel like I was too old to try to come back.” The couple decided to try to get pregnant at the end of her season in the spring of 2018, and if it did not work out, she would play another season starting in the fall.
It did work out—“Times two!” Newlin Vatansever said—but Newlin Vatansever had few models for how her career would be affected once she got pregnant. “I know very few teammates [who had children during their playing careers],” she said. “I honestly can think of two at the moment. And one of them was [pregnant] before they were my teammate.” However, those players’ comebacks gave Newlin Vatansever hope that she could follow their paths. “They came back and they were very good still,” she said, “and they were able to have the family and still play and still kind of have it all. So I did have a few examples of that and that’s kind of what we were hoping for.”
Newlin Vatansever’s pregnancy differed sharply from Diggins-Smith’s in that Newlin Vatansever was a free agent at the time. She had finished a one-year contract with Botaş in April 2018 and did not sign a contract for the 2018-19 season after she became pregnant. In the KBSL, there are no maternity leave policies in players’ contracts; pregnant players are typically cut from their teams (and not paid for any remaining games) when they are too far along to continue playing. “Teams started to put [a severance clause] in [my contract] once I got married,” Newlin Vatansever said. “… Before I was married, there was nothing in there about pregnancy.” She added that if she had gotten pregnant before there was relevant language in her contract, her agent and her team would likely have negotiated the same separation from the team.
In Newlin Vatansever’s experience, most European teams operate similarly to KBSL teams, and very few players have children during their playing careers in Europe. In her estimation, teams’ views on pregnancy differ from how they regard a player who is similarly unable to play due to injury: “They feel like [injury is] unavoidable, but they feel like [a pregnant] player chose to put themselves in this situation where they’re taken off the court.” One of Newlin Vatansever’s teammates got pregnant a few years ago, and she recalled that when the coach told the players the news, “he just said it as a matter of fact. He didn’t smile and say congratulations; he just said, ‘This player’s leaving.’”
By her own admission, Newlin Vatansever’s pregnancy and comeback were more difficult than she had expected. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, without a doubt,” she said. Having twins made her pregnancy more high-risk than a single birth, and she said that she was limited to “floating in a pool” for the last few months and lost a lot of strength. The delivery was also difficult enough that it took several months for her to recover. After she began training again, “I was so sleep deprived and exhausted … [that] I had to adjust to a new way of training, which was training without energy,” she explained. “… It was definitely notwhat I envisioned [for] me trying to get back … it took a while longer than I wanted for me to get in shape enough to play.”
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The process of finding another Turkish team to play for was also more difficult than she had anticipated, despite her track record of performance in Turkey and the added value she has as a Turkish citizen in a league that limits the number of Americans per team. Many teams were surprised that Newlin Vatansever wanted to play again after having children, and they viewed signing her as a risk. “For some reason, they just weren’t convinced that someone can come back from a twin pregnancy and be able to contribute the way I used to,” she said. Turkey’s economic crisis, which devalued the local currency relative to the U.S. dollar and the euro, also shrunk teams’ budgets—and risk tolerance—significantly because many players are paid in dollars or euros. Vatansever spoke to several coaches in the league on his wife’s behalf, and the couple sent teams videos of her workouts and data on her weight to demonstrate that she was in shape. “Finally we landed on a team that … we convinced enough,” Newlin Vatansever said. “… We feel fortunate that we were able to get [a contract], but we also feel that I was deserving of it because I am back [to] where I was pre-pregnancy.”
Newlin Vatansever has taken a pay cut this season, which she ascribed partly to the financial crisis and partly to her pregnancy. “Pretty much every player” in the league has taken a small pay cut, she said, but even without the crisis, she believed she would have had to take a pay cut because of the perceived risk of signing her. In 2017, then-33-year-old Mistie Bass made similar comments to ESPN about the difficulty of convincing overseas teams to sign her.
After all the work Newlin Vatansever and her husband put in to get back in shape and find a team, they soaked up her return to competition. “It was kind of emotional just because my husband and I are the only ones that knew exactly what I had to come back from,” she explained. “… No matter what happens from here on out, the fact that I could get back in shape enough to play again was just kind of spectacular for both of us.” She is still learning how to balance motherhood and a professional basketball career, trading naps between practices for activities with her twins, but she told High Post Hoops that continuing her career “with my kids by my side … [is] just an awesome feeling.”
Newlin Vatansever believes that pregnancy is not talked about enough in women’s sports and was eager to be interviewed for this story. “Even when Serena Williams, the best athlete in the world, [was pregnant,] it was just still kind of [a] taboo subject almost,” she pointed out. She added that, with some athletes continuing to play into their 40s, it is not always possible for female athletes to wait until retirement to start a family.
The WNBA’s new CBA makes progress on this front, providing pregnancy and childcare benefits as well as family planning benefits such as adoption, surrogacy, and fertility/infertility treatments. Specifically, it guarantees a pregnant player who is under contract with a WNBA team “one hundred percent (100%) of [her] Base Salary … for the shorter of: (i) the duration of her inability to perform services as a result of her pregnancy; or (ii) the remaining term of her Standard Player Contract.” A player whose contract ends or is terminated during pregnancy will “continue to receive the medical benefits provided for … until the later of the end of the Season in which such Contract was terminated or three months after the birth of her child.”
Although these provisions do not directly affect Newlin Vatansever, she called them “a crucial step forward” for the WNBA. “The world’s best league should reflect that in pay and treatment,” she said, and the maternity leave and childcare provisions put the WNBA “at the forefront of providing paid leave and support to its players and their families.” She added, “I think the extra stipend to cover egg freezing, surrogacy, and adoption is commendable. This small part in the CBA is a long time coming and should greatly benefit players and their families.”
Hopefully, other women’s sports leagues domestically and internationally will follow the WNBA’s lead, allowing women like Newlin Vatansever who decide to have children during their playing careers to have job security, benefits, and support from their teams. Newlin Vatansever’s efforts to return to play are laudable, but the lengths she had to go to convince teams that she—an established player in Turkey at the time—was able to perform indicate that there is significant room for improvement.
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