Three months after multiple female track stars talked to the New York Times about the ways their Nike contract punished them for becoming pregnant, the sportswear giant has amended its policy to guarantee that a pregnant athlete’s pay and bonuses cannot be cut for an 18-month period surrounding their pregnancy: eight months before the due date through 10 months after.
The news comes less than a month after one of its most high-profile athletes, Olympic champion runner Allyson Felix, signed with another apparel brand after a public dispute with Nike over its treatment of pregnant athletes.
While this is good news, it’s long overdue. And frankly, it’s embarrassing that a company that likes to run advertisements promoting women’s empowerment and applauding mothers in sport had to be publicly shamed into providing maternity rights to its athletes.
Before 2018, Nike had zero consistent protections for pregnant athletes in its contracts. Last year, Nike gave pregnant athletes 12 months worth of protections, though it didn’t communicate that properly to all of its athletes.
“Female athletes and their representatives will begin receiving written confirmation reaffirming Nike’s official pregnancy policy for elite athletes,” a Nike spokesperson wrote in an email to the Washington Post. “In addition to our 2018 policy standardizing our approach across all sports to ensure no female athlete is adversely impacted financially for pregnancy, the policy has now been expanded to cover 18 months.”
Thankfully, this new policy will apply to current contracts, as well as future ones.
None of this would be possible without Olympic runners Alysia Montaño, Kara Goucher, and Allyson Felix breaking their silence — and, even more crucially, their nondisclosure agreements — this May in a conversation with the New York Times.
In an op-ed titled, “Nike Told Me To Dream Crazy, Until I Had A Baby,” Montaño accused Nike of advertising its support of women and mothers, without actually supporting them in real life.
Montaño gained fame as the “pregnant runner” when she ran the 2014 U.S Championships while eight months pregnant. So many women saw this as empowering. But in reality, she was doing so out of necessity, not out of a desire to make a statement.
Nike contracts at the time required women to compete in a certain number of races, do appearances for the company, and maintain their top form in order to continue to earn the money available to them in their contracts. Those requirements did not change when an athlete became pregnant.
Goucher revealed to the Times that she was forced to leave her sick newborn in the hospital alone so she could train for a race that she was forced to run in order to get a paycheck from Nike.
The toughest moment was when Ms. Goucher learned that Nike would stop paying her until she started racing again. But she was already pregnant. So, she scheduled a half-marathon three months after she had her son, Colt. Then her son got dangerously ill. Ms. Goucher had to choose again: be with her son or prepare for the race that she hoped would restart her pay.
She kept training. “I felt like I had to leave him in the hospital, just to get out there and run, instead of being with him like a normal mom would,” Ms. Goucher said, crying at the memory. “I’ll never forgive myself for that.”
A week after Goucher and Montaño opened up, Felix decided to come forward with her story. Felix is one of the most successful and recognizable female runners in the country, with six Olympic gold medals. But in 2018, when she decided to get pregnant, she was incredibly nervous about what how it would impact her contract with Nike.
“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?” she said. “Nike declined. We’ve been at a standstill ever since.”
Not only was Nike not willing to provide her those guarantees, but it also wanted to pay her 70 percent less than it had paid her before her pregnancy. (Her contract with Nike expired at the end of 2017.)
Felix and Nike never were able to work out their differences. On July 31, Felix signed a multi-year sponsorship agreement with Althea, which included “full protection during maternity.”
“I’m just really thrilled about it,” Felix told People. “The way that they are doing sponsorship to me is incredible. It is focused on me as a whole — as an athlete, as a mom, and as an activist and just to be supported in that way is amazing.”
The NYT articles from May have already had a huge impact across the sports industry. Burton decided to change its contracts for female athletes effective immediately in order to support and protect women during and after pregnancy. Among the changes, Burton ensured that pregnancy would not be considered a medical condition, it would not terminate a contract for pregnancy or maternity reasons. Other brands, including Altra, Nuun, and Brooks made similar guarantees.
Maternity rights in professional sports are always a difficult thing for athletes to navigate, and in team sports, it’s labor unions which have had to fight for such benefits in leagues such as the WNBA and National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL). But in individual sports such as track & field, golf, and tennis, the female athletes are even more vulnerable because they don’t have a salary, but instead have to compete and win in order to earn money.
That’s why it’s important for sponsors like Nike to step up. It finally is, thanks to the bravery of its athletes, who risked it all to speak up and fight for a better future for female athletes everywhere.