Volleyball Participant Misplaced Her Job Over Being pregnant. Now She’s Combating Again.

ROME – When Italian volleyball player Lara Lugli got pregnant, she knew she was going to lose her job.

But when her club rejected an application for payment that she claimed was owed to her, she filed a lawsuit. The club responded by accusing her of causing financial damage and ruining their team’s season, and she decided to speak out.

Denouncing her treatment on Facebook on Sunday, she sparked outrage across Italy and a national conversation that was a long time coming. Her case was a call to action in a country where many paid female athletes have not had legal protection against discrimination for decades, and where all too often women still have to choose between motherhood or career.

“The comparison of pregnancy with bad behavior is just so low,” said Ms. Lugli, now 41. “This is not just something about me.”

Recognition…about Lara Lugli

Her case reflects greater gender inequality in Italian sport, ingrained in ingrained stereotypes in a country ranked 76th in the world on the gender gap according to the World Economic Forum.

Throughout her 25-year volleyball career, Ms. Lugli, like most other female athletes in Italy, signed agreements with a clause that allowed the club to fire her if she became pregnant. She was among a large number of women athletes who, although paid to play a sport, are classified as “amateurs” with far less legal protection than women athletes who are classified as professionals.

“It was a compromise that all athletes have always accepted,” she said. “If you get pregnant, the contract ends. They break up. It’s all over.”

Her team had competed in the national championship for the Volley Maniago Pordenone Club in northeast Italy for six months before her contract ended in March 2019 because she was expecting a child. But her pregnancy ended in a miscarriage a month later.

After the miscarriage, she asked that club to pay an installment of about $ 3,000 of her salary (about $ 24,000 per season) that she allegedly owed. But the club refused and she filed a lawsuit. In response, the club argued that her pregnancy caused financial damage associated with a decline in performance after her departure and subsequent loss of sponsorships.

“It’s the law that needs to be changed,” said Mauro Rossato, board member of Ms. Lugli’s Club. He said he hated firing a player because of pregnancy, and it was clear that it was the government’s job “to find ways to make a living for pregnant athletes, but also to clubs to get such hits.” bear”.

In court documents, the club argued that Ms. Lugli’s behavior caused serious harm because “she had failed to intend to have children at the time of the contractual agreement.” The club also argued that after her pregnancy ends, she could come back and even finish the last two months of the championship from the bench.

But she said she wasn’t up to the job.

“After my miscarriage, I would have jumped out of a window,” said Ms. Lugli. “Of course I wouldn’t have wanted to go to the gym.”

This week, her revelations caught the political attention that this issue historically lacked.

“The conviction of volleyball player Lara Lugli for motherhood is violence against women,” said Maria Elisabetta Alberti Casellati, spokeswoman for the Italian upper chamber.

Elena Bonetti, Italy’s Minister for Family and Equal Opportunities, said on Facebook on Wednesday that the fact that women have to choose between motherhood and work “forces them into inequality” and is a situation that Italian women can no longer tolerate.

In Italy, only high-ranking male football, golf, basketball and cycling players sign sports contracts classifying them as “professionals”. Athletes at the highest level – including Olympic champions and players from the national soccer team – are considered “amateurs” within the framework of their work agreements.

This allows clubs to add clauses such as pregnancy and avoid paying labor costs and pensions.

The pregnancy clauses may conflict with the constitutional protection of motherhood, legal experts said, but could not recall any previous legal challenges to the clauses. Players tended to accept the terms as the only other alternative was not to work in their chosen sport.

“They surrendered to this system,” said Flavia Tortorella, a lawyer specializing in sports law, “until someone opened Pandora’s box.”

She said that Ms. Lugli’s case could finally start a discussion about “why we women have come to accept that we give up motherhood in order to keep a job.”

In the Byzantine Italian labor market, many women on regular employment contracts enjoy maternity leave and other legal protections from sex discrimination. But a good number of women in sports work have paid jobs that are not considered professions. They are classified as “amateurs” and do not even have the most basic legal rights, such as freedom from discrimination.

If Italy were to sign female athletes with professional contracts – as did the US and Norway – most likely maternity clauses could not be imposed, Ms Tortorella said.

Italian politicians have long ignored the problem. Two years ago, the government offered financial incentives for clubs to hire women on professional contracts, and a new change aims to give athletes – including women – more protection.

In 2019, Nike pledged not to financially penalize its sponsored athletes who become pregnant after criticizing the treatment of the problem. A few months ago, FIFA, the international football association, stipulated that professional female football players must guarantee maternity leave of at least 14 weeks.

Due to the lack of public attention, political interest and funding of women’s volleyball, offering professional contracts would be a fatal blow to the clubs’ finances, said the president of the women’s volleyball league.

In 2019, the Italian women’s national football team was the only one of four finalists of the World Cup made up of amateur players. While soccer is worshiped here, the 2019 women’s national soccer team returned to the World Cup after a 20-year delay, and it was the first time the tournament was broadcast on mainstream national television.

Women are also under-represented in leading roles within national sports federations. According to a recent study, Italy is one of the last countries in Europe with just 2 percent of female chairpersons. Overall, 72 percent of athletes in Italy are men while only 28 percent are women, according to the Italian National Olympic Committee.

“It’s partly a cultural problem, and that’s clear,” said Luisa Rizzitelli, president of Assist, the national association of women athletes. But it also reflects the lack of political will to reverse the trend.

“Women in sport need protection when they become mothers,” she added. “In 2021 this is simply no longer acceptable.”

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