by Will Graves
The conversation Cecile Landi never imagined she’d feel compelled to have with the gymnasts she coaches came abruptly last summer, shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.
Landi, who competed for her native France at the 1996 Olympics before going into coaching with her husband, Laurent, gave her athletes a brief, heartfelt message: I’m here for you no matter what.
“I literally will do whatever they need me to do (if they get pregnant), even if I guess it puts me in trouble,” said Landi, who coaches in Texas, a state with one of the country’s strictest abortion bans.
For Landi, whose athletes have included seven-time Olympic medalist and five-time world champion Simone Biles and 2020 Olympic silver medalist Jordan Chiles, having a public conversation about such a private matter is part of her evolving role.
“It’s just way more than coaching, the relation we have with the athletes, talking to them about everything,” she said.
Landi’s holistic approach to her job reflects the rapidly shifting tectonic plates of the athlete-coach relationship at all levels of sports, particularly those involving women.
The overturn of Roe v. Wade added another complex and potentially fraught layer for coaches and athletes to navigate, joining a list that includes everything from the ever-evolving rules around name, image and likeness to LGBTQIA+ inclusion and transgender rights to states weighing whether to track the menstrual cycles of high schoolers.
For some coaches, the constantly shifting landscape is making their profession more demanding than ever.
“They’re getting overwhelmed,” said Dr. Kathryn Ackerman, a sports medicine physician based in Boston and the co-chair of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee’s Women’s Health Task Force. “They are overwhelmed with all of the different issues that are coming into the female athlete space.”
None may have a greater long-term impact than the overturn of Roe, a move that took away women’s constitutional protections for abortion and allowed individual states to take up the issue. More than a dozen states have since enacted laws that restrict or outright ban abortion.
Women’s athletics, particularly at the NCAA level, finds itself in largely uncharted territory.
For decades, when a high school athlete was weighing her options on where to compete collegiately, a given state’s stance on abortion wasn’t a part of the decision-making process. For some young women, now it is.
And if an athlete who becomes pregnant goes to school in a state with strict abortion laws and chooses to tell their coach, the coach may find themself in an increasingly difficult position.
Several NCAA coaches across multiple sports who spoke to The Associated Press understand that they are required to remove their own personal politics from the equation and simply offer support if one of their players discloses a pregnancy. The coaches spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.
That can be far easier for those who work in states like California, where abortion rights are codified in state law, but trickier in states with harsh restrictions. Texas, Alabama, Oklahoma and Tennessee — states that include numerous schools where women’s college athletics is thriving — have all passed aggressive bans over the past nine months.
Greg Marsden, who coached women’s gymnastics at Utah for four decades before retiring in 2015, said he’s dealt with pregnancy and supported his athletes’ choices but is glad he’s no longer in that position.
“It breaks my heart to know that now some will no longer be able to make their own decision without the threat of being tracked, reported, arrested and charged with a felony for what, until recently, had been a right,” he said.
Marsden said athletes “shouldn’t have to worry about the fate of someone to whom they may confide or ask for help, be it a parent, friend, teammate, trainer, coach or medical professional,”
Marsden is speaking from the safety of retirement, putting him at a comfortable remove. Landi works for World Champions Centre north of Houston, a facility owned by the Biles family, which gives her more freedom to speak her mind.
It’s not the same for many active college coaches, who must answer to a variety of stakeholders, from the athletes they lead to athletic directors, university presidents and governing boards. Those groups cut across a wide swath of the political spectrum, one of the reasons so many coaches were reluctant to talk on the record.
The dynamic is slightly different at the professional level. Leagues like the WNBA and NWSL have player unions to help find “workaround solutions” for those living in states with restrictive abortion laws, as NWSL Players Association Executive Director Meghann Burke put it.
The situation is far more fragile at the collegiate level.
Less than a year after the Supreme Court’s decision, several coaches told the AP that a state’s stance on abortion has come up on the recruiting trail. One coach said a recruit’s parent explicitly said their child wanted to go to school in a state where abortion rights are protected.
When the daughters of Umme Salim-Beasley, the Rutgers women’s gymnastics coach, were making their list of potential college destinations, they crossed off states where abortions were sharply restricted.
Salim-Beasley called her daughters’ thought process “eye-opening” but also emblematic of their generation, one she believes is more politically aware.
“When I was in high school, (politics) was the furthest thing from my mind,” Salim-Beasley said. “That’s not something I had to concern myself with. But I think that kids nowadays, high school kids and college kids, are very aware and informed of what’s going on.”
Stanford women’s basketball coach Tara VanDerveer works in a state where abortion rights are protected but said it’s not something she’s going to mention to a recruit.
“I think that’s for a young person to figure out for themselves, or their family to help them,” she said.
Coaching has never been just about teaching athletes the finer points of a given sport. Marsden rattled off a long list of things he did during his tenure at Utah that had nothing to do with gymnastics, from serving as the driver on road trips to cleaning the gym after practice.
Several coaches told the AP that the actual coaching portion of their jobs is becoming an increasingly smaller fraction as the years pass. There’s a culture to build. Relationships to nurture. Addressing the needs, both spoken and unspoken, of athletes of disparate backgrounds. Oh, and they’ve got to win, too.
“I think there is a lot of expectation on a coach,” Ackerman said. “And I think probably a better system would be if we had the resources at these different teams, at these different schools to allow people to ‘stay in their lane’ a little bit more — to have a sports psychologist, to have a sports medicine physician, to have a sports nutritionist or dietician, to have all these people there to help the team so the coach doesn’t have to be their everything for them.”
At the highest level of men’s and women’s athletics, many of those things are in place. But now those who coach women also have to worry about certain rights of their players being stripped, though Ackerman doesn’t believe it will cause many to leave a profession that most consider a calling.
“I think our lives in general have become more complicated,” Ackerman said. “So if they love coaching, then they just have to go along with the times and learn these skills. … Part of doing your job is understanding it’s going to change from when you first signed up. That is a choice that coaches need to make.”