Opinion

Professional athlete criticized for taking paternity leave

Ian Mendes is shocked when baseball player Daniel Murphy is criticized for taking a two-day paternity leave.

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Baseball player received flack for taking paternity leave. Photo: New York Mets

Follow along as Ottawa-based sports radio host Ian Mendes gets candid about raising daughters, Elissa and Lily, with his wife, Sonia.

When a newborn baby enters the world, you expect to hear a significant amount of crying and wailing.

However, when New York Mets outfielder Daniel Murphy and his wife had their first child this week, the loudest screams came from a couple of radio talk show hosts.

Murphy missed the first two games of the regular season to be with his wife Tori after she gave birth to their son Noah. It should be noted that the collective bargaining agreement for MLB players—basically the rules that govern the sport—allow players to miss up to three games for a parental leave. So by the letter of the law, Murphy did absolutely nothing wrong here.

But despite the fact Murphy didn’t use all of his parental leave, he was still subjected to some fairly harsh criticism from a pair of prominent talk show hosts in New York City. Read the next two quotes from the transcript on WFAN and you might be surprised to find out these were actually words spoken on the radio yesterday—and not in 1955.

Boomer Esiason: “I would have said, ‘C-section before the season starts, I need to be at Opening Day. I’m sorry, this is what makes our money, this is how we’re going to live our life, this is going to give my child every opportunity to be a success in life, I’ll be able to afford any college I want to send my kid to because I’m a baseball player.’”

Mike Francesa: “One day I understand. And in the old days they didn’t do that. But one day, go see the baby be born and come back. You’re a Major League Baseball player. You can hire a nurse to take care of the baby if your wife needs help.”

Boomer Esiason is a well-respected former NFL star and current broadcaster, but his suggestion that Murphy’s wife should have just scheduled a C-section like it’s a hair appointment is extremely insulting. This is the couple’s first child and a lot of women don’t want to have the post-surgery complications that can often arise from the procedure. He apologized for his comments earlier today, but clearly the damage had been done.

Read more: 4 realities to face if you’re having a C-section >

Mike Francesa’s comment that a nurse can take care of the baby if your wife needs help only reinforces a negative stereotype around paternity leave for men. There is still a stigma attached to paternity leave that suggests men who use it are not committed to their jobs.

I should point out that the world of professional sports has come a long way in this regards and we do seem to be trending in the right direction—although this may be a slow-moving ship. About 20 years ago there was a major referendum in the court of public opinion on this very subject after a high-profile incident involving an NFL player.

In 1993, Houston Oilers offensive guard David Williams was docked pay for one week—approximately $120,000—because he chose to miss a game against the New England Patriots after his wife gave birth to their first child. The football club felt that there was a 17-hour window between the birth of the child and the kick-off in New England the next day and that was ample time for Williams to make it on a flight from Houston to Boston. Instead, the hulking lineman opted to stay at home with his wife, while his teammates took to the field.

That move didn’t go over well with certain members of the organization, including Houston owner Bud Adams who said Williams had “misplaced priorities.” There were even members of the coaching staff who felt like he was quitting on the team.

“He doesn’t make $125,000 a week to stay home and watch television,” said Williams’ line coach Bob Young the day after the game in 1993. “They ought to suspend him for a week, maybe two. Everybody wants to be with his wife. But that’s like if World War II was going on and you said, ‘I can’t go fly. My wife’s having a baby.’ You have to go to work—especially when you get paid like that.”

That quote sounds antiquated, but given the comments from the two New York radio hosts yesterday, it’s clear there is still a lack of compassion that still plagues working fathers—especially those who are professional athletes.

Read more: Working dads push for more family-friendly policies >

I spoke to a handful of NHL players this morning and all of them told me they would have no issue if a teammate needed to miss a game or two to be with his wife in this situation.

Back in April of 2012, Jason Spezza actually missed a crucial Ottawa Senators game in Long Island because his wife was giving birth back in Ottawa. The team was on a long road trip and Spezza told me he had arranged potential flights in every city in case he needed to fly back home at a moment’s notice. He found out his wife was in labour a few hours before the Senators game in Long Island, rushed back to Ottawa—only to miss the big moment. His wife Jennifer had their daughter while he was in transit and Spezza had the double-whammy of not only missing a hockey game, but the birth of his second child as well.

He told me this morning that he has absolutely no regrets about the decision to leave the team—and he would do it again. His teammates all told me the same thing too—that they fully supported Spezza’s choice to leave the team just hours before a crucial game. It seems like more and more the culture of locker rooms in professional sports is changing to allow men to be more responsible on the home front.

Outside the locker rooms however, the public and media still seem to hold professional athletes to a vague standard that is almost unachievable. Too often we blame millionaire athletes for being selfish and yet in these circumstances where they are trying to put their families first, they are still being criticized on the radio airwaves. Sometimes, these guys are in a no-win situation.

Slowly, the playing field is tilting towards professional athletes being allowed to miss some time to be with their families, but the comments spoken in the last couple of days lead me to believe we are still a few years away from seeing this happen without any controversy being attached to it.