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Pregnant Athletes Deal With Loss Of Athletic Scholarships

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) _ Cassandra Harding waited nervously, dreading the moment her athlete's body would betray her.

Everyone would know her secret, including her track coaches at the University of Memphis _ where she was on a full athletic scholarship.

``I didn't want to talk to anyone about it. I thought, what am I going to do now?'' she said. ``I didn't want to lose my scholarship.''

But she did. And that's exactly what her coaches warned would happen.

Harding said she and other members of the Memphis women's track team were required to sign a document acknowledging they could lose their scholarships if they became pregnant.

The Memphis athletic department refused to discuss scholarship rules.

``The University of Memphis does not believe that it has violated any federal laws in the matter of Cassandra Harding,'' the school said in a statement.

Harding spoke first to ESPN, which was to include her comments in an ``Outside the Lines'' report set for broadcast Sunday. Seven Clemson student-athletes told ESPN they had abortions in recent years, due in part to their fear of losing scholarships.

NCAA spokesman Erik Christianson declined comment on the Memphis case, but acknowledged Saturday that there are no national guidelines about pregnancy. Christianson said decisions on financial aid and scholarships are made by individual schools.

Christianson added that the NCAA's national office allows pregnant athletes to apply for an extra year of eligibility, which would not count as a redshirt year. That gives some women an opportunity to stay in school for six years while competing for four.

Harding and teammate Gail Lee said Memphis coaches made it clear pregnancy can end an athletic career. Harding, who has rejoined the team since giving birth to a daughter, said the document listed other causes for which scholarships could be lost _ including drug or alcohol abuse, or assaulting a coach.

``The track coaches hand that out to you. They like read it over and then tell you to sign it,'' said Harding, a jumper. ``Well, I wasn't really thinking anything about it because I wasn't going to get pregnant.''

But she did toward the end of her sophomore year in October 2004, and gave birth to Assiah in July 2005. Harding said she considered having an abortion to avoid losing her scholarship, but decided against it.

``I shouldn't have been put in that position,'' she said. ``I'm so happy I have my baby.''

When a new school year began, Memphis declined to renew her scholarship. So Harding borrowed the money to stay in school for her junior year, and worked part-time jobs _ as a waitress, and as a package handler at the FedEx terminal in Memphis _ while rejoining the track team as a walk-on.

Harding said she went to school during the day, worked at night, went back to class in the morning and practiced with the team when required. Her boyfriend took care of the baby when she was in school or at work.

The university lists her as being red-shirted for the 2005 outdoor season and as having missed the 2006 indoor season.

Now a senior, she has a partial athletic scholarship that pays for tuition and books. She had to sign the document again when she got the partial scholarship.

Her boyfriend is now in the Army, so Assiah is living with Cassandra's mother, Maple Harding, in Killeen, Texas. Cassandra Harding expects to graduate in December with a degree in criminal justice.

Lee, a thrower and one of Memphis' top athletes, said she signed a similar document in August 2005.

``There are guys on our team that have babies. Why wouldn't they have to follow the same rule?'' said Lee, who won the shot put and finished second in the hammer throw at the Conference USA outdoor championships this weekend in Houston.

Track coach Kevin Robinson declined to discuss the case.

``Look, we're here to compete, not to become a spectacle,'' Robinson said Friday. ``I'm certainly not in a position to comment for the school. We certainly don't want to be represented in a poor light.''

Scholarships come up for renewal yearly, and colleges can decline to renew for an athlete unable to perform for medical reasons unrelated to athletics, said Barbara Osborne, a lawyer and assistant professor of sports law research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

``That is an entirely legal thing and within NCAA rules,'' Osborne said.

But many schools continue scholarships for students temporarily sidelined by accidents, illness or other medical conditions, Osborne said, and some are developing programs to assist pregnant athletes to help them stay in college.

``Refusing to renew scholarships solely because of pregnancy smacks of moralizing,'' Osborne said, ``and to actually have a policy like that and put it in writing seems very 1940s and '50s.''
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