Nike vows to end financial penalties for pregnant athletes

Athlete Alysia Johnson Montano.
Athlete Alysia Johnson Montano. Photo: Alamy/Michael Kappeler

Responding to criticism about its treatment of its sponsored athletes who become pregnant, sportswear giant Nike has committed to ensuring that such athletes are not financially penalised.

Nike said it would waive performance-pay reductions for 12 months for athletes "who decide to have a baby," promising to add terms that reinforce this policy into the company's contracts with sponsored athletes.

In articles and videos for The New York Times opinion department over the past two weeks, current and former Nike-sponsored runners such as Alysia Montaño, Kara Goucher, Phoebe Wright and Allyson Felix recalled tough decisions they had to make when considering whether to have children and described financial penalties that Nike athletes faced if they became pregnant. 

"We've recognised Nike Inc, can do more, and there is an important opportunity for the sports industry collectively to evolve to better support female athletes," Sandra Carreon-John, a Nike spokeswoman, said in a statement by email Friday.

Most endorsement contracts for runners - which account for the majority of their income - have specific performance thresholds for compensation. If they are not met, for any reason, sponsors may reduce an athlete's pay. There typically are not exceptions for maternity leave.

In one Times video, Montaño, a middle-distance runner who famously ran in the 2014 USA Track and Field championships while eight months pregnant, contrasted Nike's marketing strategy with its treatment of pregnant athletes.

"If we want to be an athlete and a mother, well that's just crazy," Montaño said in the video, referring to Nike's "Dream Crazier" commercial, which emphasises female empowerment and uses a voice-over from tennis star Serena Williams, who had her first child in September 2017. "Believe in something," Montaño says in The Times video. "Even if it means sacrificing everything, like maybe your contract, your pay."

Felix, a sprinter who has won six Olympic gold medals and is one of Nike's most visible female athletes, wrote that the company had declined to contractually guarantee that she would not be penalised if her performance dipped for a while after she became pregnant.

"If I, one of Nike's most widely marketed athletes, couldn't secure these protections, who could?" she wrote.

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Felix gave birth to her first child, a daughter, last fall, and she said she felt pressure to return to track quickly even though she had needed a caesarean section because of life-threatening pre-eclampsia.

In a memo addressed to all Nike employees Friday, Amy Montagne, a company vice president and its general manager for global properties, referred to Montaño and Felix and wrote that she was "saddened" to hear of Felix's experience with the company.

Montagne wrote that Nike realised last year that performance obligations had a disproportionate effect on female athletes who became pregnant and that the company began creating an official maternity policy. But, she wrote, the company had not informed its sponsored athletes of that effort.

"This has been a humbling event," Montagne wrote of the criticism, adding that the company had already begun reaching out to its sponsored female athletes to let them know of the policy changes.

The changes have come a year after The Times, based on interviews with more than 50 current and former Nike employees, reported on women's complaints of being harassed, marginalised and thwarted in their careers at the company.

At least 11 Nike executives, including the second most powerful man at the company, were ousted amid complaints of inappropriate behaviour and the resulting investigation.

The New York Times