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Nike loves promoting women athletes — but apparently not if they get pregnant

Olympic runner Alysia Montaño turns the company’s “Dream Crazier” motto against it, saying Nike sponsorship deals make maternal leave difficult for female athletes.

Alysia Montano running in the Women’s 800 Meter.
Alysia Montaño ran in the Women’s 800 Meter opening round at the 2017 USA Track & Field Championships.
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

For the New York Times this weekend, athlete Alysia Montaño — known during the 2014 Olympics as “the pregnant runner” — participated in a video calling out Nike for what she points out is a hypocritical disconnect between its inspirational ad slogans and its maternity leave policy for sponsored athletes.

“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 she told Nike she was pregnant, she says, they told her they would simply pause her sponsorship contract and stop paying her. Montaño goes on to describe her experience taping her abs together and shipping breast milk from China to the United States during a competition shortly after her daughter was born — measures she took because she stood to lose the sponsorships that made up her livelihood if she didn’t return to peak performance quickly enough.

The video includes clips from Serena Williams’ Nike campaign, which was released in February and encouraged all female athletes to “Dream Crazier.” This campaign was released after Williams’ Nike “Queen” line, designed by Off-White’s Virgil Abloh and the cornerstone of Nike’s broader push to include women in sneaker culture. It also pulls out a clip of Nike’s Colin Kaepernick ad campaign, which was one of the buzziest of 2018. The slogan “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything,” is inverted here, as Montaño argues that chasing her dream of being a mother nearly forced her to give up her athletic career.

The general point: Nike has emphatically chosen empowerment and triumph over adversity as a cornerstone of its brand in the last several years — whether that is expressed with more inclusive sneaker sizing or a celebration of a well-timed comeback. It’s a brand that relishes its place on the moral high ground, to the understandable frustration of someone who’s had a different experience with the brand.

In an accompanying report, 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, who was under contract with the brand from 2010 to 2016, told the Times, “Getting pregnant is the kiss of death for a female athlete. There’s no way I’d tell Nike if I were pregnant.”

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 this approach across different sports, and that it was standardized in 2018 “so that no female athlete is penalized financially for pregnancy.” A 2019 track and field Nike sponsorship contract obtained by the Times, however, still includes a clause that says Nike can cut sponsorship pay when athletes don’t meet their performance goals “for any reason.”

When asked if Nike would be awarding back pay to female athletes who had been penalized in the past, the spokesperson did not respond.

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