Evolution of paternity leaves in sports

December 22, 2020

Virat Kohli’s Australia tour got over with as the first Test at Adelaide finished in an eight-wicket loss for India. The talismanic Indian skipper has been granted paternity leave by the BCCI. However, the decision to miss out on three matches of the much-anticipated series, as everything Kohli does, has sparked widespread debate.
The 32-year-old’s decision of availing paternity leave to be by his wife Anushka Sharma’s side during childbirth has earned Kohli plaudits as well as criticism from fans. While some are commending him for being with his wife during such an important time of their life, others have said he is in “dereliction of national duty” as he will be missing out on an important series for personal matters.
Anyone who is questioning the skipper’s choice now should remember it’s the same Kohli who came out to bat in a Ranji Trophy match after his father succumbed to a heart attack the previous night. “I still remember the night my father passed away as it was the hardest time in my life. But the call to play the morning after my father’s death came instinctively to me,” Kohli told CNN in an interview.
Like then, Kohli has no ounce of doubt regarding his decision now. “It is a decision that was absolutely clear in my mind. As committed as you are to play for your country, this is a very, very special moment in life and something that you want to be there for at any cost,” he said in an interaction with Steve Smith.
They say there will never be a day like the day your baby is born but we live in a society where missing out on such an important occasion is the type of sacrifice expected from sportspersons. Sporting success is valued more than family. So much so that in the 1990s, baseball player Billy Bean even missed his partner’s funeral to play a game.
Several professional athletes have had to bear the pain of not being witness to important family events.
Former India skipper and incumbent BCCI President Sourav Ganguly, who has granted paternity leave to Virat, was not able to meet his daughter Sana for more than a month after she was born as he was leading the team in a Test series against South Africa in 2001.
Another former India captain, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, famously missed the birth of his daughter. The flamboyant wicket-keeper batsman was in Australia for the tour in 2015 ahead of the World Cup, when Ziva was born. His wife Sakshi had to call his India teammate Suresh Raina to inform the captain about the joyous news as Dhoni was in true Dhoni style incommunicado. The next day during the press conference when he was asked whether he would like to be with his family, Dhoni said “Not really … as of now am on national duties so I think everything else can wait. The World Cup is a very important campaign.”
No one knows how Dhoni feels about his choice in retrospect but one person who definitely regrets not being there with his partner during childbirth is former Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech. The footballer was stranded in the UK while his wife Martina gave birth in Prague. His role with Chelsea, who were scheduled to play the Carling Cup semi-final that night, prevented him from being present at the birth. However, he later said he regretted missing the birth “but my daughter decided she was coming in the middle of the night, and there was nothing I could do about it.”
French footballer Anthony Martial had one of the worst experiences. The Manchester United star left the cub’s pre-season trip to US to support his wife Melanie Da Cruz through a difficult labour in Paris. But then manager Jose Mourinho questioned Martial’s decision not to return to tour and the striker was subsequently slapped with a £180,000 fine and publicly shamed for the choice he made. Martial had taken leave for just a week out of which two days were spent on travel.
However, things are changing, gone are the days when paternity leaves were frowned upon, sports governing bodies are becoming more compassionate and accommodating, allowing players to give priority to their families.
This is an extremely vital development as sports persons are seen as role models to many young people and the society as a whole must encourage new fathers to take more of an active role in the upbringing of children.
In cricket, besides Kohli, two other national team captains took paternity leaves this year.
Most recently, New Zealand’s Kane Williamson and partner Sarah Raheem welcomed a baby girl. The Black Caps skipper missed a Test against West Indies. Fortunately, he had the complete support of his New Zealand coach Gary Stead who said “As a dad, as a parent, one gets that opportunity once in their lives for witnessing their (first) child’s birth. At the end of the day, they play cricket but such other things are much more important.”
England Test skipper Joe Root missed the much-awaited opening Test against West Indies, which marked the resumption of international cricket after a 117-day hiatus forced by the COVID-19 pandemic, to witness the birth of his second child.
In 2018, swashbuckling India opener Rohit Sharma missed the fourth and final Test in Sydney to attend to his wife, Ritika Sajdeh, who had delivered their first child, Samaira. Rohit took a week off before joining the squad ahead of the ODI series against Australia.
Australian pacer Kane Richardson gave up his IPL contract worth Rs 4 Crore to be home for the birth of his child this year. “Don’t think I’d ever be able to live with missing the birth of my first kid,” he said.
Australia coach Justin Langer came out in support of Kohli and Richardson, saying “Virat’s a human being, and I respect his decision. It’s the same with Kane Richardson. He sacrificed the IPL so that he could be at the birth of his son. So if I was giving advice to any of my players, I would always say never ever miss the birth of your children, because it is one of the great things you will ever do.”
Portugal’s talismanic football captain Cristiano Ronaldo missed his country’s third-place play-off match against Mexico at the Confederations Cup in 2017 to meet his newborn surrogate twins. While Wales and Tottenham Hotspur forward Gareth Bale skipped an important derby clash against Chelsea in order to be back in Cardiff to see his partner give birth way in 2012.
Several governing bodies and sponsors, like Cricket Australia, Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), Nike and FIFA, have rolled out parental benefits for female athletes recently. With male athletes increasingly opting to be present at their child’s birth, one hopes these bodies will adopt a similar approach towards paternity leaves rather than castigating players like Martial was by Mourinho at Manchester United. That will be major step in normalising paternity leaves and the next time a player decides to skip an “important” game there will (hopefully) be no hue and cry.

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