American 800-meter specialist Alysia Montaño has won six national championships, but she may be most famous for running the 2014 race while eight months pregnant with her daughter. Montaño, a 2012 Olympian, also ran in 2017 while five months pregnant with her son. It takes incredible physical effort to perform like that while carrying a child, and as Montaño revealed in an op-ed for the New York Times and a companion video, it also can mean the cessation of one’s primary income.
Montaño used to be sponsored by Nike, and when she told them she was pregnant, she said, they told her they would stop paying her until she began competing again. The bulk of an elite runner’s salary comes from whatever apparel company sponsors them, so turning off this particular spigot is akin to removing their primary income. She then switched to Asics, which responded in similar fashion. Montaño faced additional financial pressure from the United States Olympic Committee, which stopped paying for her health insurance after she didn’t race for a while. A non-disclosure agreement between Montaño and Nike didn’t stop her from calling them out over the way they discourage athletes from becoming pregnant by cutting off their sponsorship deals.
Fellow Olympian Kara Goucher also said Nike told her they’d stop paying her if she wasn’t competing, so she rushed back to race a half-marathon three months after giving birth. Goucher said she’s been suffering from chronic hip injuries ever since she raced the Boston Marathon seven months after giving birth. “It took such a toll on me mentally and physically, for myself and for my child. Returning to competition so quickly was a bad choice for me. And looking back and knowing that I wasn’t the kind of mother that I want to be — it’s gut wrenching,” Goucher said.
Yesterday, Allyson Felix joined the chorus. The six-time Olympic gold medalist and Nike athlete had her first child in November 2018, and she wrote in a New York Times piece of her own that Nike’s post-pregnancy offer came with a 70-percent pay cut. She said she was willing to accept that, but only if she was able to secure a more stable deal as she recovered from emergency surgery at 32 weeks pregnant. After all, she is one of Nike’s most widely marketed track athletes. Still, they didn’t give an inch:
What I’m not willing to accept is the enduring status quo around maternity. 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?
Nike declined. We’ve been at a standstill ever since.
Both Montaño and Felix specifically called Nike out for the hypocrisy of patting themselves on the back with triumphant commercials celebrating the achievements and potential of female athletes while simultaneously denying their own sponsored athletes maternity leave. “If companies want to stand by the inspirational slogans they tout, they must ensure sponsored female athletes receive maternity leave,” Montaño said.
Nike responded to Montaño and Goucher’s stories with a statement saying they’d “standardized [their] approach across all sports to support our female athletes during pregnancy” in 2018, and promising “our contracts for female athletes will include written terms that reinforce our policy,” though they provided no details of the new policy they’re touting. Felix said she looks forward to seeing specifics.