Just (don’t) do it: Nike’s response to pregnant athletes comes up short

Numerous athletes have criticised Nike for not paying them during pregnancy, which has prompted the manufacturer to respond.



Runner Alysia Montaño has released a video castigating her sponsor, Nike, for what she claims is a hypocritical disconnect between its inspirational slogans and the reality for sponsored athletes, particularly when one falls pregnant.

“If you want to be an athlete and a mother, well that’s just crazy,” she says in a voiceover, mocking Nike’s “Dream Crazier” slogan. “No, seriously, it’s not a good idea.”

When Montaño told Nike she was pregnant, she says, they told her they would simply stop paying her. Montaño’s video includes clips from Serena Williams’ Nike campaign, which encouraged all female athletes to “Dream Crazier” (which also gave us the company’s broader push to include women). Montaño’s clip also samples Nike’s Colin Kaepernick ad campaign, which sported the slogan “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.”

Clearly, Nike has monetised empowerment. They proudly deliver their message from the moral high ground, which drips like acid rain into the sponsored shoes of Alysia Montaño.

In the aforementioned piece, the Times points out the fact that all four Nike executives in charge of sponsorship contracts with track and field athletes (like Montaño), are men. Another Nike-sponsored runner, Phoebe Wright, told The New York Times, “Getting pregnant is the kiss of death for a female athlete. There’s no way I’d tell Nike if I were pregnant.”

Olympic runner Kara Goucher said she went back to running soon after giving birth, training for a half-marathon so she could resume being paid by Nike. “I’ll never forgive myself for that,” she told The Times. “It took such a toll on me mentally and physically, for myself and for my child,” Goucher said. “Returning to the competition so quickly was a bad choice for me. And looking back and knowing that I wasn’t the kind of mother that I want to be — it’s gut-wrenching.” Goucher’s Boston Marathon performance left her with a chronic hip injury.

In an emailed statement, a Nike spokesperson told Vox, “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.”

The spokesperson also said that there was “inconsistency” in the policy across different sports, and 2018 saw an adjustment “so that no female athlete is penalised financially for pregnancy.” But a 2019 Nike sponsorship contract obtained by The Times includes a clause that says Nike can cut sponsorship pay when athletes don’t meet their performance goals “for any reason.”

When Vox asked if Nike they would award back pay to female athletes who had been penalised in the past, the spokesperson did not respond. It is worth mentioning that the United States is the only developed country without a national, paid parental leave program, which brings Nike to a moral (if iffy) par. Their rival, Asics, told CBS that their sponsored athletes are paid in full during (and after) pregnancy.


One Nike athlete did manage to keep her contract during pregnancy, which happened to be Serena Williams, who we all know as the most marketable (and most successful) female athlete on the planet. Clearly, all athletes are equal, but some are more equal than others. Even pregnancy, it seems, is a competitive forum. If even their true value is not empowerment, but the bottom line, not paying pregnant athletes makes little sense.

As Marketwatch contends, Nike needs relatability, a connection with real women. “Nike has a strong track record of using celebrities as part of their overall marketing strategy, however, many big brands have seen a lot of success over the last couple of years using real women at the heart of their campaigns,” said Katie O’Dell, senior vice president of strategy at Ansira, a marketing agency.

Elevating pregnancy as part of being a woman is both powerful and profitable. Who wouldn’t want to see a campaign based on athletes competing at the same level whilst being pregnant? That, or they’re sponsoring the next generation of athletes. It sells itself.

The salient point is that treating real people as a commodity in 2019 will not do.

Be better Nike. Just do it.



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