Earlier this year, six-time USA outdoor running champion Alysia Montaño spoke out against Nike’s penalization of pregnant female athletes. The story launched what continues to be an ongoing discussion on Nike and its maltreatment of women athletes by reducing or even ceasing their pay during pregnancy and postpartum recovery. In early November, World Junior Champion Mary Cain appeared in a New York Times op-ed where she accused Nike’s Oregon Project and her former coach, Alberto Salazar, of carrying out physically and emotionally abusive training regimens, leading her to develop osteoporosis and intentions to self-harm.
As one of the most powerful brands of our generation, Nike is more than just a sports apparel company: Its catchy “Just Do It” slogan has inspired generations of athletes to train with confidence and determination. Nike’s advertisements also depend on influencers and athletes who tout motivational messages that promote athletic excellence and social change. For example, professional tennis player Serena Williams’s “Dream Crazier” advertisement delivers a compelling narrative for women’s empowerment and showcases her “unconstrained grit and determination.”
When Williams announced her pregnancy, Nike benefitted from this unending grit through a series of ad campaigns that promoted her as a symbol of said grit and physical health. The story fits perfectly with Nike’s identity as a progressive and woman-empowering company. At the exact same time, however, the company continued to abandon support of other less well-known athletes also preparing to have a baby. Kara Goucher, an Olympian referenced in The New York Times op-ed, suffered from chronic hip injuries after running the Boston Marathon just seven months after having her son. Goucher also told The New York Times she suffered severe emotional trauma after trying to balance the needs of her severely-ill newborn with the need to continue running so she could earn money. These stressors — both physical and emotional — were born from Nike’s threat to revoke her financial security should she stop training. This covert exploitation contradicts Nike’s public narrative, revealing that campaigns such as Williams’s solely exist to boost sales rather than to truly support women. This is disgustingly ironic and represents a greater structural problem for maternal care in the sports apparel industry, which sidelines women to use them only as branding tools.
Cutting pay for women in any profession because of pregnancy is a restrictive violation of bodily autonomy. In fact, the freedom “to found a family” is 16th on the United Nations’s Declaration of Human Rights, and Nike’s contracts are a clear strike against this right.
Aside from Nike’s exploitative marketing practices, the abuse of female athletes appears to be rooted in an extreme imbalance among the bureaucracies and staffs that are meant to support female athletes. This is fairly apparent in the company’s decision-making hierarchy: The four executives who negotiate contracts for track and field athletes — including paid leave for pregnant female athletes — are all men. This system means that no one with first-hand experience of pregnancy or postpartum has the opportunity to fight for these women’s rights when it comes to Nike’s contract negotiation.
In particular, runner Mary Cain’s powerful op-ed in The New York Times has cast light on the darker side of Nike’s Oregon Project. Cain described how her former coach Albert Salazar pushed her into a system of restrictive eating and unhealthy training, resulting in her missing her period for three years and serious injuries, such as broken bones. Both Goucher and former Oregon Project coach Steve Magness have corroborated Cain’s claim that Salazar also publicly berated female athletes for their weight for years. When Cain told her coaches she had begun to cut herself after being told her five-pound weight gain worsened her athletic performance, they offered no help or support. Former Nike female athletes have also claimed their coaches did not include a nutritionist or a licensed sports psychologist to support the athletes’ demanding physical regimen. Given this evidence, we should be hesitant to accept Nike’s reversal of its policy on pregnant athletes as a resolution to the entire issue. Nike’s continual maltreatment of female athletes still facilitates emotional and physical abuse at the hands of a predominantly male coaching staff who have no ability to empathize with their trainees.
In an emailed response to The Times, Salazar said he “denied many of Mary’s claims and said he had supported her health and welfare.” This contradiction feels unrealistic given the plethora of female athletes and other coaches who have both corroborated Cain’s stories and included their own tales of maltreatment and abuse.
Nike’s hypocritical exploitation of its female athletes is emblematic of the misogynistic culture surrounding women in sports. Despite coming under fire for its controversial practices, Nike has not yet come up with a better treatment for its female athletes. However, rather than investigating and compensating directly involved athletes, Nike should center its solution around the abhorrent culture that produced such unethical practices and abusive coaches like Salazar.