I’ve been one of Nike’s most widely marketed athletes. If I can’t secure maternity protections, who can?
In her video above, the Olympian Allyson Felix tells her story around pregnancy and Nike.
I’ve always known that expressing myself could hurt my career. I’ve tried not to show emotion, to anticipate what people expect from me and to do it. I don’t like to let people down. But you can’t change anything with silence.
Last week, two of my former Nike teammates, the Olympian runners Alysia Montaño and Kara Goucher, heroically broke their nondisclosure agreements with the company to share their pregnancy stories in a New York Times investigation.
They told stories we athletes know are true, but have been too scared to tell publicly: If we have children, we risk pay cuts from our sponsors during pregnancy and afterward. It’s one example of a sports industry where the rules are still mostly made for and by men.
I have my own pregnancy story as a professional runner.
For most of my life, I was focused on one thing: winning medals. And I was good at it. At 32, I was one of the most decorated athletes in history: a six-time Olympic gold medal winner and an 11-time world champion. But last year, my focus expanded: I wanted to be a professional athlete and a mother. In some ways, that dream was crazy.
I decided to start a family in 2018 knowing that pregnancy can be “the kiss of death” in my industry, as the runner Phoebe Wright put it in The Times last week. It was a terrifying time for me because I was negotiating a renewal of my Nike contract, which had ended in December 2017.
Olympic runner Alysia Montaño had accomplished all her dreams but one: being a mom. When she finally went for it, she faced her biggest challenge yet — her sponsors.CreditCreditEzra Shaw/Getty Images
I felt pressure to return to form as soon as possible after the birth of my daughter in November 2018, even though I ultimately had to undergo an emergency C-section at 32 weeks because of severe pre-eclampsia that threatened the lives of me and my baby.
Meanwhile, negotiations were not going well. Despite all my victories, Nike wanted to pay me 70 percent less than before. If that’s what they think I’m worth now, I accept that.
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?
Ironically, one of the deciding factors for me in signing with Nike nearly a decade ago was what I thought were Nike’s core principles. I could have signed elsewhere for more money.
But when I met with the company’s leadership in 2010, one woman told me about a Nike-sponsored initiative called the Girl Effect that promoted adolescent girls as the key to improving societies around the globe. By joining Nike, she said, I could help empower women. She told me Nike believed in women and girls, and I believed her.
Which is part of why my recent experience has been so heartbreaking.
My disappointment is not just with Nike, but with how the sports apparel industry at large treats female athletes. This isn’t just about pregnancy. We may stand behind the brands we endorse, but we also need to hold them accountable when they are marketing us to appeal to the next generation of athletes and consumers.
Last week, thanks to the voices of a few brave women, the industry took a step in the right direction. Brands like Burton, Altra, Nuun, and Brooks came forward to announce new contractual guarantees for women who have children while being supported by their sponsorships. A few days later, Nike also committed to changing its maternity policy, announcing, according to The Wall Street Journal, that “it is adding language to new contracts for female athletes that will protect their pay during pregnancy.” I applaud Nike for seeing that change was necessary, and I look forward to specifics, from Nike and the rest of the industry who has yet to commit to contractually protecting women.