Why you should care
Want to bond with your new baby, athlete dads? Better not miss a game.
Miles Mikolas had worked his entire nine-year career for this opportunity, and when he finally earned it, he had to walk away. On May 21, the St. Louis Cardinals pitcher threw his first major league complete game, a shutout. Not long thereafter, he earned his first All-Star selection. But life had other plans.
The day before the July 17 All-Star Game, Mikolas’ wife, Lauren, went into early labor with the couple’s twins. Mikolas flew to Jupiter, Florida, to be there for the twins’ birth and subsequent stay in the neonatal intensive care unit.
The twins — and Lauren — are fine, and Mikolas returned to the mound, helping lead the Cardinals to a strong finish this season. But when his family needed him during that week in July, he was able to be there, no questions asked, thanks to Major League Baseball’s paternity leave policy.
Would it have been as easy to put his family first if Mikolas played for the NFL, the NBA, the NHL or MLS? No, and this is why: MLB is currently the only North American men’s pro sports league to guarantee its players paternity leave. The progressive policy allows clubs to place players on paid leave for up to three days without having to play a man short, as was the case before the implementation of the policy.
If the NBA wants to continue its reputation for being the world’s most “woke” pro sports league, paternity leave has to be on the table.
“It’s 2018 and we should be supporting working parents,” says Scott Behson, a professor of management at Fairleigh Dickinson University and author of The Working Dad’s Survival Guide. “Baseball has been forward on this issue, and by all accounts, this is something that came out of a collaboration between team owners and the players’ union; it was not a contentious issue.”
Behson adds that it’s imperative that workplaces, be they major sports leagues or otherwise, have a stated formal policy regarding parental leave. “It takes the decision off the coach or general manager or athlete to make a decision that might be unpopular, or [for which] they might fear some informal repercussion.”
The players’ associations for the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLS did not provide comments as to whether this is an issue they are taking up with their respective leagues. But the NFL and its union are about to renegotiate their collective bargaining agreement; the latest iteration, passed in 2011, was weighted decidedly toward the owners. And if the NBA wants to continue its reputation for being the world’s most “woke” pro sports league, paternity leave has to be on the table.
Mikolas is working to normalize the stigma surrounding athlete dads taking paternity leave and is currently involved in a campaign with Dove Men+Care to help drive awareness for paternity leave. “It’s an experience that I think every guy should get, being in that delivery room and being part of the whole process,” he says.
MLB has been leading the way on this issue since 2011. Three years after this policy was written into baseball’s collective bargaining agreement, then–New York Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy took his guaranteed leave to attend the birth of his first child. The decision earned the scorn of radio host Mike Francesa and former NFL quarterback Boomer Esiason, both of whom questioned why Murphy needed to be away from his team for three days. Francesa went so far as to call paternity leave “a scam and a half.” There’s this idea among sports fans and talking heads that the business of having children is best left to the offseason. “That’s not always how it works,” Mikolas quips.
There’s no question that America has a warped perception overall when it comes to parental leave. The United States is the only industrialized nation that doesn’t have a federal policy ensuring paid time off for mothers or fathers following the birth of a child. And as long as it’s not the norm, it will continue to be stigmatized. That’s why it’s crucial that athletes, some of the most visible figures in the nation, set the tone.
“Not just sports leagues, but companies and corporations, in general, should be working on trying to get dads a little bit more paternity leave,” says Mikolas. “They want that time with their families.”
That brings us back to the other four leagues. Is guaranteed paternity leave a reasonable expectation across all major men’s sports? As Behson points out, varying season lengths matter. It’s easier for baseball, which has a 162-game season, to give its players three days of paid leave than for football, which has a 16-game season.
Still, like it or not, professional sports teams and athletes often occupy the center of America’s social discourse. It’s time for the other sports leagues to catch up to baseball when life throws their players a curveball.