Alysia Montaño is more than a track star; she’s an Olympian and three-time U.S. national champion. And when she chose to compete while eight months pregnant with her first child in 2014, she also earned the moniker “the pregnant runner.”
If Montaño’s accolades—and athleticism—sound inspiring, they are. But for her sponsors—first Nike, followed by Asics—her decision to biologically pursue motherhood simply impacted their bottom line. Accordingly, her main source of income was also impacted, as neither Montaño’s sponsors nor the United States Olympic Committee and USA Track & Field has provisions in place to accommodate pregnant athletes. Instead, her sponsorship dollars and health insurance were cut, in response to her being sidelined—by pregnancy.
Montaño revealed the gender bias in an explosive op-ed for the New York Times on Mother’s Day, titled “Nike Told Me to Dream Crazy Until I Wanted a Baby.”
Many athletic apparel companies, including Nike, claim to elevate female athletes. A commercial released in February received widespread acclaim for spotlighting women at all stages of their careers, from childhood to motherhood. On Mother’s Day this year, Nike released a video promoting gender equality.
But that’s just advertising.
Undoubtedly, most of us are familiar with Nike’s woman-centric ads, including its lauded “Dream Crazier” spot, which ran in March, voiced by Serena Williams—a Nike-sponsored athlete who won a Grand Slam while four months pregnant (unsurprisingly, Williams seems to have lost no sponsorship dollars during her pregnancy and maternity leave, due to her cachet). Ironically, the same day as Montaño’s op-ed, another girl power-themed ad, titled “Dream With Us” debuted, voiced by Viola Davis and asking, in part, “Can you be the generation that ends gender inequality?”
No doubt spots like those are a bitter pill to swallow for Montaño, who, along with Olympian runner Kara Goucher and “more than a dozen track athletes, agents and others familiar with the business describe a multi-billion-dollar industry that praises women for having families in public—but doesn’t guarantee them a salary during pregnancy and early maternity,” wrote the Times, pointing out that an all-male committee of Nike executives negotiates contracts for track and field athletes.
In a statement, Nike confirmed that some sponsored athletes had suffered salary reductions as a result of pregnancies, but claimed to have “changed its approach” in 2018 (via Ragan’s PR Daily).
Nike is proud to sponsor thousands of female athletes. As is common practice in our industry, our agreements do include performance-based payment reductions. Historically, a few female athletes had performance based reductions applied. We recognized that there was inconsistency in our approach across different sports and in 2018 we standardized our approach across all sports so that no female athlete is penalized financially for pregnancy.
However, in a 2019 Nike track and field contract obtained by the Times, there were still no provisions or exceptions made for pregnancy, childbirth, or parental leave, but pay can be reduced “for any reason” if an athlete drops in performance or ranking.
“So, companies like Nike tell us to ‘dream crazy.’ We say, ‘How about you stop treating our pregnancies like injuries?’” Montaño, now a mother of two, asks in a Times video, the opening of which is produced to resemble one of Nike’s famous spots. “Then they tell us to ‘believe in something.’ We say, ‘How about maternity leave?’ How about when you tell my daughter she can achieve anything, you back it up?”
In an official statement sent to The Glow Up on Tuesday, equality advocacy organization Time’s Up offered its own rebuke of Nike.
Nike’s response that their treatment of Alysia Montano and other athletes is “common practice in our industry” is unacceptable. As one of the most successful companies in the world, Nike should be setting industry standards—not conforming to them. Nike: women and girls around the world are watching—change your performance-based compensation contracts to exclude pregnancy, childbirth and maternity. It’s time to align the messages of strength and empowerment that you profit from with your treatment of female athletes.
Obviously, Nike isn’t solely complicit in the lack of accommodations for female athletes. But if its punitive practices aren’t disturbing enough, Nike’s steadfastly aggressive “girls can do anything and everything” marketing makes it more so, as it’s clearly in rhetoric only.
“We’re the ones who decide what dreams are crazy, and what dreams make perfect sense,” Montaño tells the Times’ cameras. “And we’re the ones who tell our daughters the difference between dreams and advertising.
“So come on, Nike,” she adds. “When are you going to start dreaming crazy?”