For Chicago Red Stars defender Arin Wright, being a professional soccer player requires juggling more than just a ball

The partnership between the Chicago Red Stars and the Fertility Centers of Illinois marks just the second partnership supporting women’s reproductive health in the National Women’s Soccer League. (Photo courtesy of Chicago Red Stars)

By Molly Keshin
Medill Reports

Two years ago, Arin Wright was rushing through the airport for the Chicago Red Stars’ first travel trip of the year. Not only were her bags filled with soccer equipment, but her hands were also occupied with a crib, diaper bag, stroller and too many baby bottles to count. And, most importantly, her breast pump.

Several hours and a full 90-minute match later, rather than celebrating her first time back on the field for a competition in months, Wright checked her watch and disappeared from the pitch. Mom duty was calling.

“I remember right after my first game I was like sprinting off the field because I was looking at the clock like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m so close,’” Wright said. “I need to pump. I feel like I’m going to burst.”

Coming into the 2021 season, Wright, a veteran defender on the Red Stars, expected the challenges that come with balancing motherhood and a career. However, being a professional athlete in the National Women’s Soccer League added a whole other list of concerns in juggling soccer balls and family life. This inspired Wright to take the lead in forming a partnership between the Red Stars and the Fertility Centers of Illinois (FCI) and U.S. Fertility this past October.

While casually scrolling on Instagram as she and her teammates hung out in the locker room on a crisp fall day, Wright suddenly shot up out of her chair. “Guys,” she said, “did you just see what Racing Louisville posted?”

At first glance, it was simple: a purple graphic. But in reality, it was much more. The post announced a partnership between the club and the Kentucky Fertility Institute, with a caption that included, “We believe players shouldn’t have to choose between playing and starting a family.”

As various teammates responded with “Whoa” and “That’s so cool,” Wright was already typing away on her phone, texting the Red Stars’ director of sponsorship and operations Michelle, Henstock, and asking to follow in the footsteps of their NWSL opponent.

“We are a women’s sport and as we are aging into this sport, people are playing longer and families are a thing that come up and are top of mind,” Wright said. “We had to figure out how to make the league and our team the most accommodating that we can while also not hindering our performance on the field. Having that peace of mind is super important.”

Jonathan Lintner, Racing Louisville’s vice president of communications, couldn’t agree more. He said the club, which is only in its second year, started a “motherhood movement.”

“When you look at the bigger picture of building a club, there’s certain things you do, like build a world-class training facility and stadium,” Lintner said. “You do those sorts of things to attract players and then there’s some things like this that you do just because it’s the right thing to do, especially if you have the resources. If you’re going to win games, you want your athletes to be happy and healthy.”

Dr. Channing Burks Chatmon is a reproductive endocrinologist and board-certified obstetrician and gynecologist with the Fertility Centers of Illinois, as well as a former Division I athlete herself. To add to the list, she is also now the primary fertility care physician for the Red Stars. Through the partnership, Dr. Burks Chatmon will support the club’s athletes in three services: egg freezing to preserve fertility, embryo freezing for family planning and fertility awareness testing.

“Most of these women are, as you can imagine, very healthy, but it’s more so how age impacts fertility because they are playing much later into their 30s, like Carli Lloyd,” Dr. Burks Chatmon said. “There’s the issue of, ‘OK well, do I want to have a family? Do I have to prioritize that over soccer and give up that as my passion?’ We don’t want women to have to choose, so we want them to be able to come in and assess their fertility potential or reserve and then be able to make decisions based on that information.” The players’ fertility information and decisions will remain private between them and Burks Chatmon.

One significant part of the partnership, according to Wright, is that the team will financially support the services, which would otherwise be difficult for the average NWSL athlete to afford.

“To me, it was a no-brainer,” Wright said. “I honestly didn’t realize I had this passion for fertility until I had (my son) Grady, but now that I’m an older veteran in this league and I’ve had friends that had fertility issues and I know what the process of being a mom looks like, I’m super stoked about it and to support the league as it grows. I really hope other teams follow suit, and I wouldn’t mind getting on calls if people need any convincing.”

There are several other aspects of balancing motherhood and being a professional athlete that Wright has come to learn and appreciate –– as well as advocate change for –– especially as her son, Grady, just turned 2 on April 20. To name a few: matching up team meetings with her child’s nap times; taking care of her healing body after giving birth while also mending a strained hamstring; solidifying the details of maternity leave that are now laid out in the NWSL’s first collective bargaining agreement; and advocating for a leaguewide daycare service, as she has come to appreciate its ability to let her focus on soccer while she’s on the job.

As a medical professional and mother of two kids, Burks Chatmon said she also understands the hardships that come with a work-life balance.

“Mothers who are professional athletes face the same challenges that mothers face who are professionals in any field, but it’s taken to a higher level,” Burks Chatmon said. “The light and awareness that they can shed on the issue will hopefully transcend to other women, in other sports leagues or professions.”

Wright continues to enjoy her experience as a mother with a whole team behind her –– especially because Grady loves when all 25 teammates surround him at the airport on away trips, saying, “I love you, Grady!” and giving him presents. But Wright is also working towards her ultimate goal in life: to make a difference.

“I’ve always wanted to be a part of something that would change the trajectory of somebody’s life and career, and right now, this is my moment,” Wright said. “Now  we could have the ability to not have to feel stressed by our biological clock. I’m super excited about it, and I can’t wait for the years to come.”

Molly Keshin is a sports media graduate student at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter @mollykesh22.