There was a quietly heartwarming moment in this year’s Ashes series, amid all the passion and rivalry that always characterises the England cricket team’s biannual tussle with their bitter rivals from Australia. Batter Joe Denly, a recent recruit to the England ranks, left the field at the end of the first of the five days of the final Test match at the Oval in London and drove 60 miles to be with his wife for the birth of their daughter.
The next day, tired but happy, Denly was back on the field by 6pm facing the Australian bowlers. He made his highest score to date, only narrowly missing out on a coveted Test century.
“It has been incredible,” Denly told reporters. “It would have been even more amazing if I had managed to get to that hundred mark, but yes, over the moon.”
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Denly’s parenting experience was better by far than that of Manchester United’s French superstar Anthony Martial, who was fined £180,000 and publicly shamed in 2018 for missing a week of training after flying from a pre-season training camp in America to Paris so that he could support his wife through a difficult labour, and welcome his son into the world. Two of the days he was away were devoted to travel alone.
A week away from work to be with your wife and newborn child may seem little for most occupations, but not in sport.
This is the type of sacrifice we expect from professional athletes. Sport proffers the idea that winners never quit and quitters never win. Sporting success is valued more than family.
It is an ethos so entrenched in the history of professional men’s sport that in the 1990s, baseball player Billy Bean even missed his partner’s funeral in order to play a game.
Women’s sport leading the way
So it’s good to see that Australian cricket recently announced a “game-changing” policy to provide parental leave for female cricketers. The policy will allow pregnant players to take up non-playing roles on full pay until their child’s birth and then to take up to 12 months of paid parental leave after. This guaranteed contract extension means that it is now easier for female cricketers to combine professional sport with raising a family.
The policy also permits players three weeks of paid leave if their partner gives birth to a child or if they adopt a child. These policies make Australian cricket among the most family-centred employers within all western cultures.
More so, time away from sport for the sake of family is valued. Instead of managers castigating players the way Jose Mourinho, Martial’s manager at Manchester United castigated his star player, Clea Smith, the general manager of member programs at the Australian Cricketers’ Association said:
The policy is designed to keep female players in the game for longer which will have a positive impact at all levels of the game.
Female tennis players are now afforded greater rights and protections on their return to the sport following maternity leave. Similarly, Nike will no longer financially penalise athletes due to pregnancy and maternity absences from sport.
The lack of paternity leave
The question is: why are professional male athletes, who reside within one of the most lucrative business structures in modern culture, denied “sufficient” paternal leave and castigated when they do take leave? Part of the answer concerns owner and manager greed. But the masculine value of sacrifice also reflects an ethos from which the very basis of elite sport developed.
In the 20th century, competitive team sports were used as a socialising agent to teach boys that there is masculine value in sacrificing the body for the sake of breadwinning and soldiering. Sport has gone a very long way in uncoupling itself from this macho idea with the introduction of concussion substitutes in cricket and punishments for on- and off-field violence in many sports. But men are still expected to sacrifice their family commitments in the pursuit of sporting success.
This type of sacrifice will one day be relegated to the dustbin of history. Fathers are increasingly placing their own and their family’s emotional needs first. If a sportsman is financially capable of taking time away from work – which an increasing number of elite athletes are – you’d expect that, given the way attitudes to masculinity are changing, they will. Or, as Martial rightly stated: “I will always put my family first.”
Most men today would find taking only one week of paternal leave from work insufficient. We therefore suspect that professional athletes will push for more. We also suspect that owners of sports teams will continue to resist, preferring profit over players’ welfare. To this end, it’s vital for the media to stop accentuating this idea of sacrifice and instead to frame athletes as superheroes precisely because they put their families first.