Should young women be allowed to participate in sports if they're pregnant? One 17-year-old's desire to continue playing volleyball during her pregnancy divided her Fort Worth, Texas, high school.
Mackenzie McCollum, a high school senior, was the starting setter on the volleyball team at Arlington Heights High School in Fort Worth.
"I was on the court all the time, I didn't come off," McCollum said. "I played all the way around."
While new policies are now in place protecting pregnant athletes in college from losing their financial aid, most high schools haven't tackled the issue. When McCollum's school found out she was pregnant, the athletic coordinator ordered her off the team until she could provide a written note from a doctor clearing her to play.
Officials from the Fort Worth Independent School District declined ESPN's request for an on camera interview, citing a district rule that prevents them from publicly discussing a specific student's medical issues. But on the phone, a spokesperson said it was standard policy at Arlington Heights High School and throughout the district to require students who get injured or develop a medical condition to get a written release from a doctor before they can return to the team.
Dr. Jay Herd, a Fort Worth ob-gyn, examined McCollum and gave her permission to play with some conditions. But school district officials sent McCollum's mother a letter saying they were "unable to accommodate the need to monitor her heart rate" and "physical contact is inherent in this sport."
Three days later, Herd had his nurse write a second note saying McCollum "can continue to play volleyball at this time" with no restrictions. That note cleared McCollum to play the next day.
McCollum was told that during her absence, head coach Jack Warren had informed the team that she was pregnant. She says her anguish was compounded when Warren reduced her playing time.
"He told me that he always does this before people move up and before the seniors leave, and then I looked on the court and everyone else was still there," she said, choking up. "I felt like this was the one thing that I could count on …that everything would be OK and everything would work out and then that, too, was taken away, so it made me feel like I was kind of left with nothing to really count on."
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McCollum believes her playing time was reduced because of her pregnancy, and her friend and teammate Whitney Davis says she also noticed a change.
"I thought he was treating her differently because we had pretty much never, like, seen him do anything like that to where, you know, he split a player's time," Davis said.
Warren declined repeated requests for an interview to explain his decisions.
McCollum's final season ended after the first round of the playoffs Nov. 3. But the controversy isn't over for McCollum or her mother, Barbara Horton.
"My goal is for them to change their policies to include pregnant athletes," Horton said, "to nurture pregnant athletes, and to make sure that these athletes are successful."