ROME — When the Italian volleyball player Lara Lugli got pregnant, she knew she would lose her job.
But when her club refused a request for some pay she claimed was owed to her, she brought a lawsuit. The club responded by accusing her of causing financial damage and ruining her team’s season, and she decided to speak out.
She denounced her treatment on Facebook on Sunday, triggering outrage across Italy and a national conversation that was a long time coming. Her case was a call to action in a country where many paid female athletes have lacked legal protections against discrimination for decades, and where all too often women must still choose between motherhood or jobs.
“Comparing a pregnancy to bad behavior is simply so low,” said Ms. Lugli, now 41. “This is not something just about me.”
Her case reflects a broader gender inequality in Italian sports, entrenched in deeply rooted stereotypes in a country that ranks 76th in the world in terms of gender gap, according to the World Economic Forum.
For her entire 25-year volleyball career, Ms. Lugli, like most other female athletes in Italy, signed agreements with a clause that allowed the club to dismiss her if she got pregnant. She was one of a large number of women athletes who, even though they are paid for playing a sport, are classified as “amateurs” with far fewer legal protections than athletes classified as professionals.
“It was a compromise that all female athletes always accepted,” she said. “When you get pregnant, the contract ends. You part ways. It is all over.”
Her team had been competing in the national championship for the Volley Maniago Pordenone club in northeastern Italy for six months before her contract terminated in March 2019 because she was expecting a child. But her pregnancy ended in a miscarriage a month later.
After the miscarriage, she asked that club to pay an installment of about $3,000 of her salary (about $24,000 per season), which she claimed they owed her. But the club refused, and she brought a lawsuit. In response, the club argued that her pregnancy had caused financial damages linked to a drop in performance after she left and a subsequent loss in sponsorships.
“It’s the law that must be changed,” said Mauro Rossato, a board member for Ms. Lugli’s club. He said he hated having to fire a player over pregnancy and it was clear that it is the government’s job to “find ways to allow pregnant athletes to make a living but also clubs to endure such hits.”
In court documents, the club argued that Ms. Lugli’s behavior caused it serious damage because “she omitted at the moment of the contractual agreement her intention to have children.” The club also argued that after her pregnancy ended, she could have come back and finished the last two months of the championship, even from the bench.
But she said she was not up to that task.
“After my miscarriage, I would have jumped out of a window,” Ms. Lugli said. “For sure, I wouldn’t have felt like going to the gym.”
This week, her revelations began to attract the kind of political attention that this problem has historically lacked.
“Condemning volleyball player Lara Lugli because of maternity is violence against women,” said Maria Elisabetta Alberti Casellati, speaker of Italy’s upper chamber.
Elena Bonetti, Italy’s minister for family and equal opportunities, said on Facebook Wednesday that the fact women must choose between motherhood and work “forces them into inequality,” and is a situation that Italian women can no longer tolerate.
In Italy, only top-level male soccer, golf and basketball players and cyclists sign sports contracts that classify them as “professionals.” Female athletes even at the top levels — including Olympic winners and players on the national soccer team — are considered “amateurs” under their work agreements.
This allows the clubs to add clauses such as the one on pregnancy and avoid paying labor costs and pensions.
The pregnancy clauses could be at odds with constitutional protections for maternity, legal experts said, but they could not recall any earlier legal challenges to the clauses. Players tended to accept the terms because the only other alternative was not to work in their chosen sport.
“They surrendered to this system,” said Flavia Tortorella, a lawyer who specializes in sports law, “until someone opened the Pandora’s box.”
She said that Ms. Lugli’s case could finally start a discussion on “why us women we got to the point of accepting to give up motherhood in order to keep a job.”
In Italy’s byzantine labor market, many women with regular job contracts enjoy maternity leave and other legal protections against gender discrimination. But a good number of women in sports work paid jobs that are not considered professions. They are classified as “amateurs” and lack even the most basic legal rights such as freedom from discrimination.
If Italy signed female athletes with professional contracts — as do the United States and Norway — maternity clauses would most likely be impossible to impose, Ms. Tortorella said.
Italian politicians have long ignored the problem. But two years ago, the government offered financial incentives for clubs to hire women with professional contracts, and a new change aims to provide more protections to athletes — including women.
In 2019, Nike promised to not financially penalize its sponsored athletes who become pregnant, after its handling of the issue had been criticized. A few months ago, FIFA, the international governing body of soccer, made it mandatory to guarantee maternity leave for at least 14 weeks for professional women soccer players.
But because of the lack of public attention, political interest and funding for women’s volleyball, offering professional contracts would be a fatal blow to the clubs’ finances, the president of the Women Volleyball League has said.
In 2019, the Italian women’s national soccer team was the only one among four finalists at the world championship composed of “amateur” players. While soccer is revered here, the women’s national soccer team returned to the world championship in 2019 after lagging for 20 years, and it was the first time the tournament was aired on mainstream national television.
Women are also underrepresented in leading roles within the national sports federations. With only 2 percent of women chairs, Italy ranks among the last countries in Europe, according to a recent study. Overall, 72 percent of athletes in Italy are men, while only 28 percent are women, according to the Italian National Olympic committee.
“It is a partly a cultural problem, and that is clear,” said Luisa Rizzitelli, the president of Assist, the national association of women athletes. But it also reflects a lack of political will to invert the trend.
“Women in sports need to be allowed to have protections if they become mothers,” she added. “In 2021, this simply is no longer acceptable.”