Nike prides itself on encouraging athletes around the world with the simple motto, "Just Do It." Everyone from professional athletes to casual consumers have likely bought into the brand's ideology. If you put in the time, effort, hard work and sacrifice, you can make your dreams come true. But can they?
For some professional female athletes, including ones sponsored by Nike, sacrifice is the common thread weaving their recently told stories together. Olympic runner Alysia Montaño opened up to The New York Times nearly two weeks ago to shed light on the lack of maternity protection given to female athletes in sponsorship contracts. In a video for the Times, Montaño called out Nike for preaching a message of chasing dreams—only until an athlete wants to include motherhood in her journey.
"If we want to be an athlete and a mother, well that's just crazy," Montaño said in the video, referencing Nike's "Dream Crazier" ad. "Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything, like maybe your contract, your pay."
Montaño shared an issue few in the public knew about or had even stopped to consider: female athletes are being punished for getting pregnant. After pushing their bodies to its physical limits to become a top competitor in their respective sports, athletes are often financially rewarded with sponsorship deals. In a sport with little mainstream attention, like track and field, athletes rely on checks from sponsors to provide funds for their training and livelihood. However, female athletes face discrimination for wanting to have children during their careers, as sponsors have indicated that they won't continue to get paid while taking time away from their training to give birth and recover. In essence, their contracts don't include paid maternity leave.
Many sponsorship deals also include non-disclosure agreements that keep athletes from addressing issues like these. By speaking out, Montaño—who no longer has a deal with Nike—and others want to bring an end to the challenges of obtaining guarantees for maternity protection in their contracts. If a woman wants to take a career break to have a baby, why should she be punished for it financially?
Montaño Starts a Movement
Montaño was already viewed as an example of a mom who can do it all. She earned the nickname "the pregnant runner" after participating in the women's 800 meters at the 2014 U.S.A. Track and Field Outdoor Championships while nearly eight months pregnant with her first child. Despite being praised in the media for competing while pregnant, it turns out that everything wasn't as ideal as it appeared.
In the video, Montaño revealed that when she told Nike that she wanted to have a baby, the brand told her it would pause her sponsorship deal and stop paying her. She left Nike to sign with Asics, who she said also threatened to stop paying her during her recovery after childbirth. In order to meet the demands of her contract, Montaño detailed how she taped her abs together for races and even shipped breast milk home to the states while competing at the 2017 IAAF World Championships in Beijing.
Other runners spoke against Nike in the story accompanying Montaño's video. "Getting pregnant is the kiss of death for a female athlete," said Phoebe Wright, who was sponsored by Nike from 2010–16. "There’s no way I’d tell Nike if I were pregnant."
U.S. Olympic marathoner Kara Goucher said she found out during her 2010 pregnancy that Nike was going to stop paying her until she started racing again. She planned to run a half-marathon three months after giving birth in an effort to start getting paid again.
The Times story was just the beginning of a wave that crashed and picked up plenty of other voices on its way. Suddenly people wanted answers for why sponsors weren't supporting female athletes during pregnancy, and companies quickly worked to announce changes to their policies. Nuun, Altra, Brooks and Burton came out saying they would implement contractual guarantees for pregnant athletes, and Nike issued a statement last Friday to reveal policy changes are coming.
"Last year we standardized our approach across all sports to support our female athletes during pregnancy, but we recognize we can go even further. Moving forward, our contracts for female athletes will include written terms that reinforce our policy," Nike said. "Our mission has always been to support athletes as they strive to be their best. We want to make it clear today that we support women as they decide how to be both great mothers and great athletes. We recognize we can do more and that there is an important opportunity for the sports industry to evolve to support female athletes."
Allyson Felix Raises Her Voice
Six-time Olympic gold medalist Allyson Felix joined the growing body of female athletes speaking out about lack of maternity protection in sponsorship contracts with an op-ed in the Times on Wednesday. Felix revealed her contract talks with Nike came to a "standstill" after she asked the brand to guarantee she wouldn't be punished for not performing her best in the months following childbirth.
"What I’m not willing to accept is the enduring status quo around maternity," Felix wrote. "I asked Nike to contractually guarantee that I wouldn’t be punished if I didn’t perform at my best in the months surrounding childbirth. I wanted to set a new standard. If I, one of Nike’s most widely marketed athletes, couldn’t secure these protections, who could?"
Felix said she was negotiating a new contract with Nike in 2018 when she decided to start a family. She gave birth to her daughter Camryn on Nov. 28, 2018, after experiencing complications during her pregnancy and undergoing an emergency C-section at 32 weeks. After her daughter's birth, Felix said Nike wanted to pay her 70% less than it did before and she "felt pressure to return to form as soon as possible."
While she applauded Nike for seeing it needed to make a change, she wrote that she's looking forward to seeing what specific contractual changes come from sponsors.
More Athletes Speak Out
Plenty of other women from the professional running community shared their own stories on Twitter and applauded their peers for bringing attention to the issue.
"Tons of credit to @allysonfelix & other athletes for speaking openly about this issue. If one of the world’s most decorated athletes is viewed as expendable by a sponsor, it’s apparent that some companies fail to see value in athletes beyond results. Many companies, fortunately, invest in a long-term relationship with their athletes and are willing to value athletes as individuals, whether or not someone is currently competing. As contract workers, athletes are vulnerable. But sponsors can choose to provide some security. Kudos to the companies who are using this moment to change their policies to protect female athletes during pregnancy. I’m proud to rep a company like @nuunhydration that recognizes they can be part of a culture that supports mothers better. This is bigger than sport."
"When I was coming out of college, I met with two brands. I asked what would happen if I were to be pregnant over the course of my contract. One brand said they would pause my until I competed again, another brand said they would fully support me without change.....The second brand was @newbalance and I’m so grateful for their stance. While I’m not planning on starting a family now, I’m proud to represent a brand that truly supports women in sport...in all aspects of their life and career."
Jamaican Olympian and 5,000-meter record holder Aisha Praught-Leer:
"It was made clear to me that pregnancy would result in zero pay from @Nike until I returned to form. It was the thing that helped me see clearly a pattern of problems there. I signed with a feminist brand @oiselle, who walks the walk. Take notes, industry. The women who came through for this piece: @AlysiaMontano @karagoucher @Phe800 @lindsaycrouse...and others behind the scenes...Thank you. The culture around pregnancy and women’s professional sport is related to the fact that there’s barely any women in sports marketing positions of power or executive roles in the Outdoor industry. HIRE WOMEN and make your work culture a safe place for them. One more thing about work culture. Many of these sports marketing jobs are so insane that the only way to be successful at them while having a family of their own is with a full-time parent at home or a working spouse who takes on the lion’s share of emotional labor. The way a company treats work/family balance for its employees unsurprisingly trickles down to how these employees look at work/family balance for their employees or athletes they sponsor."
"This is about relationships and being a thoughtful adult showing value as a maturing athlete. We obviously don’t need to ask sponsors if we can have kids, but we should celebrate the good news with them. Send pink cookies declaring “The company is having a girl!” What about making your sponsor feel valued! I communicated with @ASICSamerica right away and shared my vision of staying involved, traveling as a race ambassador while pregnant, and my hope to insert myself into a community of other parents balancing their passions. I’ve proudly represented this company for 20 yrs!"
More from Goucher and Wright:
Congresswomen Jaime Herrera Beutler and Lucille Roybal-Allard, co-chairs of the Congressional Caucus of Maternity Care, sent a letter of inquiry to Nike CEO Mark Parker to ask about the company's "pay fairness policies and company contracts with female athletes who are pregnant, breastfeeding or in the postpartum period."
The letter asked if sponsored athletes were required to engage in unpaid work activities or appearances for Nike while pregnant or recovering. It also inquired about how many times Nike has paused or ceased sponsorship payments for pregnant female athletes or male athletes when they became fathers.
The congresswomen also called out Nike for discriminating against its athletes and not practicing the mission it preaches in its ad campaigns.
"We request that you respond to this inquiry in an honest and transparent manner, and we strongly urge you to hold Nike accountable to its own self-proclaimed principles of integrity and fair treatment of female athletes at every stage of their careers–from the time they are young girls to the time they choose to simultaneously bear the title of athlete and mother."
Lindsay Crouse of The New York Times, who produced Montaño and Felix's videos, recently discussed what the future could look like for maternity protection in sponsorship contracts on the "Runners of NYC" podcast.
"I've heard from some agents that maybe not reducing pay within twelve months of pregnancy, whenever you want to start or stop that clock, could be a humane way to do it. Or even just to say what the reduction will be," Crouse said. "Just knowing what the parameters are of when you need to start. Basically, the length of time in which you can not be competing and how you actually fit that in between being pregnant and recovering. I think that's what people need to understand.
"I think the issue here and what everyone is kind of saying about this, and this seems to be true, are these contracts are written with a six-month period of non-competition in mind before reductions can start occurring or before they have the right to pause your contract altogether," she added. "And that works really well for an injury, whether you're male or female, but pregnancy is nine months and then recovery is another issue altogether."
The company said it would waive performance-pay reductions for 12 months for athletes "who decide to have a baby" and will add terms that reinforce the policy for female athletes into contracts. Bloomberg first reported on a memo from company vice president Amy Montagne addressed to all Nike employees Friday that announced the changes.