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Has Nike Reached the End of Its Relationship with Women's Track and Field?

In the past six months, the New York Times has published three viral videos of former Nike athletes – Alysia Montaño, Kara Goucher, and, most recently, Mary Cain – speaking out against the brand and the unequal treatment of its female athletes.

In May of this year, Montaño and Goucher broke their non-disclosure agreement with Nike when they went on record to make a public statement about their pregnancy and how it was treated by the brand. Both athletes are olympians and have had extremely successful careers while being sponsored by Nike. That is, until they became pregnant. As soon as the brand found out about their pregnancies, both athlete’s contracts were suspended until they were back in world-class shape after giving birth. By not paying female athletes during their pregnancy Nike has been effectively pushing women out of the sport and making it even harder for them to come back to the same elite level they were at pre-pregnancy. At the most uncertain and vulnerable time in their careers, when these athletes are at their athletic primes, Nike shut off their income. This jeopardizes athlete’s way of supporting themselves and their babies because when pregnant they were no longer perceived as assets. The brand has refused to offer maternity protection for any athlete. In the case of 9-time olympic medalist, Nike offered to pay Goucher 70% less when the contract would resume, after pregnancy. This is and should not be a common theme in the sponsors of women's track and field. After Montaño’s contract was put on pause she left Nike completely and signed a contract with Asics at six months pregnant, going on to run in the national championship at eight months pregnant. This shows how not granting maternity protection or pay is an unnecessary act of inequality that has only been exhibited by Nike. Nike has declined to make a public statement on the matter.

However, the problem with Nike’s treatment of their female track athletes goes far beyond maternity issues. Earlier this month, Mary Cain came out with her own Nike horror story, this time focussed around Nike’s training camp and facility: The Oregon Project, a Nike funded initiative to train the world's fastest runners to break barriers of the sport. Cain, at 17 years old, was the U.S.’s foremost middle distance runner and was recruited for the program by Nike Track and Field head coach, Alberto Salazar. What Cain got out of this program was not in fact the world class training she expected, but instead was emotionally and physically abused by Salazar and his team of unqualified, Nike endorsed “coaches.” According to Cain, as soon as she arrived at the program, the all-male staff decided that the only way for her to be faster was to be thinner. Salazar would starve and body shame Cain and other athletes by creating baseless nutrition plans for the athletes and trying to control their weight by forcing athletes to take birth control pills and diuretics. As the use of diuretics are illegal in the sport Salazar was recently banned from track and field for four years for administering them to his athletes; however, he has decided to appeal the ban. When Cain or other athletes would not reach goal weights set by Salazar he would publicly shame, belittle and verbally abuse them making them feel worthless, scared and psychologically tormented. This coaching technique plagued athletes mentally and resulted in declined performance from many of them. This intense mental strain ended up taking such a toll on Cain that she fell deeply depressed and began self harming. When she brought up this fact to Salazar and the unlicensed team psychologist it was unaddressed. Cain left the team soon after this incident. Unfortunately, this went even further. Through the extreme stress put on Cain’s body she, as well as several other Oregon Project athletes, developed RED-S syndrome causing her to lose her period for 3 years, as well as having other negative physiological effects.

Nike’s maltreatment of their female athletes on several different occasions in several different ways shows their utter disregard towards their athletes and their wellbeing. For a brand that has built a reputation of supporting women through pregnancy by supporting Serena Williams and athletes who were unfairly disadvantaged such as Colin Kaeperick, their actions towards their female track and field athletes is not only deplorable, but is, by all measures, hypocritical. The perceived ethical position of the brand on these issues was only exploited for publicity’s sake and never actually put into practice. On top of this, Nike still runs ads featuring Goucher to inspire the notion of equal opportunity and potential, highlighting the painful irony of the situation.

After Montaño, Gaucher, and Cain spoke out, many other athletes have been inspired to share their similar experiences. This has resulted in a movement against Nike which can be seen in all of track and field through boycotting of the brand. Traction has been quickly gained for this movement and its effects become more and more evident as athletes are now steering clear from supporting their brand and signing contracts with Nike. The separation between the athletes and the brand could signify the beginning of the end of Nike’s monopoly over professional track and field. Unless Nike makes some immediate changes it is unlikely that the sentiment towards them will change from the track and field community. Despite all of this, Nike’s influence and ownership of professional athletics may make any effective change impossible as it will probably take more than backlash to take down a 33 billion dollar company.

Nike has since issued a statement in regards to Cain, saying that “[they] take the allegations extremely seriously and will launch an immediate investigation to hear from former Oregon Project athletes. At Nike we seek to always put the athlete at the center of everything we do, and these allegations are completely inconsistent with our values.” While this treatment is quite obviously inconsistent with their advertised values, there is currently no information being provided indicating Nike did not treat their athletes in this manner. Nike’s actions following these allegations are going to prove to be very important for the brand’s perception and their future in women's track and field - hopefully there is going to be positive change that comes out of this ordeal.

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