We can — and should — celebrate Crystal Dunn without expecting her to set a pregnancy standard

Portland Thorns FC's Crystal Dunn celebrates her goal in their win over the San Diego Wave FC in the NWSL semifinals at Providence Park in Portland, Oregon, on Oct. 23, 2022. (Amanda Loman/Getty Images)
Portland Thorns FC's Crystal Dunn celebrates her goal in their win over the San Diego Wave FC in the NWSL semifinals at Providence Park in Portland, Oregon, on Oct. 23, 2022. (Amanda Loman/Getty Images)

As someone who had to replace their refrigerator this month, I know for certain I had food in my fridge older than the five months between Crystal Dunn giving birth and scoring her first goal of the season. Pushing Portland Thorns head coach Rhian Wilkinson’s joke further, I had plenty of food longer than the three months between birth and training with her professional team.

It was 156 days to her goal, to be exact, and it came in stoppage time, sending the Thorns to the NWSL championship game and 22,035 fans at Providence Park into pure euphoria. It has been a hard, heavy month for the league after the Sally Yates report described in detail the sexual harassment by three coaches that included former Thorns manager Paul Riley. But, October will end in a historic first for the NWSL with the championship game between the Thorns and Kansas City Current airing in primetime on CBS (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET) from Audi Field in Washington, D.C.

One of the most well-known stars on the pitch will be Dunn, a U.S. national women’s soccer team defender who said she considered staying on maternity leave for the full 2022 season. The 2019 World Cup champion gave birth to her first son, Marcel, on May 20. A month later, she was training. And 18 weeks later, she played in her first game. It’s an extraordinary return story that, because of its subject, featured on front pages of sports sites and social accounts that might not otherwise give an NWSL story such prominent attention.

While we celebrate the accomplishment, we should also caution against selling it as a barometer or setting her as the role model for all athletes, let alone all women. Everyone’s return journey from a pregnancy is different, as Dunn has said, and she had advantages many can’t access. No one should be held to such a lofty standard after a medical procedure talked about as routine, yet is a physically traumatic experience that can have minor to serious complications.

Wilkinson cautioned as much after the win, adding Dunn’s return was “done carefully with a lot of very, very skilled people supporting her return to play.”

The reason Dunn could even consider extended leave is the maternity protections that have slowly been introduced into women’s sports through newer collective bargaining agreements. If there’s any role model takeaway in this story — and society loves to position women as constant role models — it’s that maternity leave should be the standard.

FIFA, the sport’s governing body, in 2020 mandated at least 14 weeks of maternity leave paid at a minimum of two-thirds of a player’s full salary. U.S. Soccer added in parental leave for an agreed upon amount for a maximum of six months. The NWSL’s newest CBA introduced eight weeks of paid parental leave. The United States, in sharp contrast, is one of six countries worldwide that does not provide paid parental leave.

That’s the first prong of Dunn’s support: being able to work back on her own schedule without having to stress about returning for money or a roster spot. That hasn’t always been the case and isn’t for many women in the U.S. And while some have players plan their pregnancies around athletic schedules, it’s not always an option. Nor is it fair.

Portland Thorns FC defender Crystal Dunn with her husband, Pierre Soubrier, and their son, Marcel, at Providence Park in Portland, Oregon, on June 19, 2022. (Craig Mitchelldyer/USA TODAY Sports)
Portland Thorns FC defender Crystal Dunn with her husband, Pierre Soubrier, and their son, Marcel, at Providence Park in Portland, Oregon, on June 19, 2022. (Craig Mitchelldyer/USA TODAY Sports)

World Cup champion Sydney Leroux said she had planned to have a baby in March 2019 and play most of the NWSL season. But she experienced a miscarriage, which impacts an estimated 25% of known pregnancies, and had to continue trying for a second child. Leroux gave birth to her daughter in June 2019 and worked back to the pitch in an emotional moment three months later.

The next prong is the individualized high-level physical and emotional support. Dunn’s husband is Thorns athletic trainer Pierre Soubrier, giving her an in-house guide for postpartum recovery and elite training. It’s hardly going out on a limb to say most women don’t have that. Most athletes don’t even have that, though they do have easier access.

Alex Morgan, whose San Diego Wave were on the wrong side of Dunn’s game-winner, worked with a personal trainer after giving birth to her daughter, Charlie, in 2020. Both stars also trained throughout their pregnancy with individualized, detailed plans.

They were not the first ones, nor will they be the last. Kealia Watt of the Chicago Red Stars gave birth to her first child with husband and NFL star J.J. Watt on Sunday. Each story is unique and matters as more women take advantage of having children while still playing.

“I’m not the first female athlete to be pregnant and give birth and have my career and be a mother at the same time,” Dunn said, “but I feel the more and more that we can speak out about our experiences and push for the next generation to feel like they have the option to do so as well is how you set up the future.”

Dunn’s return to lead the Thorns to the title game is extraordinary and should be celebrated. It doesn’t happen without hard work, commitment and persistence from a person whose life has been turned upside down.

Yet, it doesn’t mean she has to be the standard. If we take one thing from it, let it be that maternity policies are the real victor here. It allowed her the opportunity to safely come back on her own terms. Those just happened to lead to a title game.

NWSL CHAMPIONSHIP

When: Saturday, 8 p.m. ET from Audi Field in Washington, D.C.

TV: CBS and Paramount+

About the Thorns: Portland finished second in the NWSL table with 39 points (10-3-9). They led the league in goals (49) and in goal differential (25) by a double-digit margin. Portland advanced with a 2-1 win against the third-place San Diego Wave.

Midfielder Sam Coffey and forward Sophia Smith were named to the 2022 Best XI First Team this week. Coffey, a Rookie of the Year contender, has an 83% pass rating and 70% tackle clip. Smith, named MVP on Thursday, was second in the Golden Boot race behind Alex Morgan (16). Her 14 goals were a single-season record for Portland.

Defenders Kelli Hubly and Becky Sauerbrunn made the Second Team list. Midfielder Yazmeen Ryan had five assists, second-most in the regular season.

About the Current: The Current, whose franchise formerly played in Utah, is in its second season in Kansas City. They finished fifth with 36 points (10-6-6), tied with the Houston Dash, and were even at 29 goals for and 29 against. Kansas City advanced with a 2-1 win against the Dash and a 2-0 win against the league-leading OL Reign.

Midfielder Lo’eau LaBonta was named to the Best XI First Team. LaBonta had a career-best seven goals in 20 regular season matches, a number that ranked eighth in the league. Kristen Hamilton and CeCe Kizer each scored seven.

Goalkeeper Adrianna Franch and defender Hailie Mace made the Second Team. In 22 games, French ranked second in saves (77) and gave up 26 goals for a 1.18 goal-against average.