written by Valerie Morales
In every Olympic Games she has appeared in, Allyson Felix has medaled. She medaled in Beijing in 2008. She medaled in London in 2012. She medaled in Rio in 2016. She has 6 Olympic golds and 3 silvers; silver was her first medal when she was 18 and appeared in Athens in 2004. Over the next 15 years, she would race the 100, 200 and 400 meters. She’s an Olympic champion and World Champion in 200 meters. She is the World Champion in 400 meters.
In the World Championships, she has won 13 gold medals. The 12th broke Usain Bolt’s 11 World Championship gold medals record. As usual, she wore her bliss with alert grace and humility.
Allyson Felix, is one of the greatest athletes of her generation and one of the most consistent. She is aspirational for young women of color who are often encouraged to embrace the word can’t. Felix, because of her popularity and her success, has been highly marketed by Nike, her beaming smile, her pixie face saturated with determination and will, her lithe form nearly ready to chase a zephyr, donning commercial after commercial to remind us women athletes are just as powerful as men. And yet, Nike repressed the Olympian track superstar when they discovered Allyson Felix wanted to start a family.
Pregnancy discrimination is rarely talked about in sports because for the most part sports is sold as a masculine geography. NFL Sundays. Saturday college football. LeBron and the NBA. It’s clickbait that serves an entertainment function.
We do pay attention to female athletes but situationally, during the Olympics or World Cup, or when Serena Williams is about to hold up a trophy. Women athletes are covered as distractions and place holders until the men take the stage. It’s institutional bias at a primal level on a weekend afternoon.
When women do get their 15 minutes of shine, rarely is pregnancy discrimination a topic, despite the devastating effect when corporations trample on women who want to be mothers.
Women are their most vulnerable, financially and physically, athlete or not, when they are having a baby. The pregnancy can be fragile. The delivery is fraught with complications. And afterwards, the body of both mother and child needs a lot of nurturing.
But men often think of pregnancy as inconvenient for them, symptomatic of a hangover they want to just sleep off. Men demand to be viewed as patriots but don’t consider the embrace of women’s equality a patriotic value. Women are still seeking solidarity from men who shout to the high heavens they are different than their fathers, that they deeply care about women. And then they are silent when women are oppressed.
Female employees are still being fired when they reveal they are pregnant. It’s more subtle than being called into the office at the end of the day and given the pink slip. Bosses have learned, via HR handbooks, to overscrutinize work as they look for mistakes and reasons to let women go. Corporate culture often puts up barriers. They are not going to make accommodations for pregnancy, which is to say they are not going to assist the women they employ.
During a 14 year period beginning in 1997 and ending in 2011, there was a 50% increase in pregnancy discrimination charges filed to the Employment Opportunity Commission. It’s estimated that a quarter of workers are not given accommodations once they reveal they are pregnant. Pregnancy discrimination has lifelong effects. Because of work stress, women often miscarry and linger in the pain of losing a pregnancy and child. Or, they are forced to leave jobs they love and enter an uncertain job market. Hiring a pregnant woman is something few managers are interested in.
In 2017, Allyson Felix breathed the same air as her discriminated sisters. Her contract with Nike was ending and she let them know she wanted to start a family. That is when Nike negotiated a 70% pay cut into her next contract. Felix was angered and wrote an op-ed in the New York Times. “If we have children, we risk pay cuts from our sponsors during pregnancy and afterwards. It’s one example of a sports industry where the rules are still mostly made for and by men. I asked Nike to contractually guarantee that I wouldn’t be punished if I didn’t perform at my best in the month surrounding childbirth. Nike declined.”
In her op-ed, Felix points out that Nike was attractive to her as a sponsor because of their history of community engagement. They sponsored an initiative, the Girl Effect- which identified adolescent girls as the future for global peace. Felix believed she was empowering women by joining into a marriage with Nike.
But Nike is an idea. On the surface, they embrace both men and women who break barriers, and stand up for social change, as they use sport on multiple digital platforms to unite the world. But the core of Nike is anything but.
Allyson Felix left Nike for Athleta. She wrote, “We may stand behind the brands we endorse, but we also need to hold them accountable when they are marketing us to appeal to the next generation of athletes and consumers.”
Almost a year ago, Allyson Felix gave birth to a daughter Camryn. It was a very difficult pregnancy. She was diagnosed with Pre-eclampsia and Camryn was delivered by c-section. Eventually, she went back to doing Allyson Felix things. At the World Championships in Qatar, she broke Usain Bolt’s record for the most gold medals. She proved pregnancy was not something to negotiate. It wasn’t a disease that needed a cure. It wasn’t a dark mark on the resume, or a reason to withhold money. Pregnancy is social justice. It is faith; believing in the next generation enough to want to lovingly nurture one. Pregnancy is a promise to the earth. Another human is coming into the world. Amen. Hallelujah.
But Nike presented Felix and other pregnant athletes a Faustian bargain. A baby, or your career.
The executives at Nike who negotiate track and field contracts are men. Their perspective is drowning in male arrogance, and gender stereotypes. Women are objectified, their value in direct contrast with their output, like a product on the assembly line. Pregnant women are denied context. Athlete. Mother. Spokeswoman. Champion. They are viewed as commodities and revenue streams.
Phoebe Wright was a Nike track athlete who was under contract from 2010–2016. She was honest when she said in a NYT op-ed “There’s no way I’d tell Nike if I were pregnant.” Kara Goucher wasn’t paid by Nike until she resumed racing when her son Colt was three months old. When Colt was stricken with an illness, Goucher wasn’t protected by Nike. Leaving Colt in the hospital room to train was the choice Nike forced upon her.
Before Colt’s birth, Nike wouldn’t allow Goucher to reveal she was pregnant. They announced it for her on Mother’s Day. Using Goucher’s pregnancy as a prop, and then using it as a punishment, is the low hanging fruit women have to endure, mostly in silence.
“It took such a toll on me mentally and physically for myself and for my child. Returning to competition so quickly was a bad choice for me. And looking back and knowing that wasn’t the kind of mother that I want to be is gut wrenching.”
Nike admitted to treating pregnant women like merchandise but want the record to reflect that they changed their policy in 2018. And yet, they can still reduce pay if the athlete doesn’t meet a performance threshold after 12 months without exceptions for childbirth, pregnancy, or maternity. Because Nike requires athletes to sign a non-disclosure, their abuses on behalf of pregnant women are protected. Unlike pregnant women making beds and cleaning toilets at Marriott hotels, athletes are considered independent contractors and the laws that cover pregnancy discrimination do not apply.
Alysia Montaño is known for the flower in her hair that stays in place while she runs. She was mythologized as the pregnant runner when she ran a race eight months pregnant. Three years later, she ran while five months pregnant. It was less about her commitment to the sport than it was about her Nike paycheck. She had to run.
When confronted with their treatment of pregnant women, Nike stumbled and stammered. They reverted back to that thing men often do when they have been outed, toxic masculinity and arrogance leading them down the rabbit hole. In the case of Allyson Felix, they lacked vision and insight. Allyson Felix could have been a powerful symbol because black maternal mortality is a devastating tragedy in African American communities. In record numbers, black women die giving birth. Allyson Felix as a pregnancy success story and with the Nike power behind her could have affected many. That Nike understood the power of a Colin Kapernick ad but dismissed the impact of Allyson Felix is generational sexism we have seen a bunch of times and just shake our heads at. Serena Williams is the exception Nike hides behind when pressed about how they treat pregnant women.
“We’ve recognized Nike, Inc. can do more and there is an important opportunity for the sports industry collectively to evolve to better support female athletes” said a Nike spokeswoman, who conflated their abuses with the industry at large, as if to say it’s not just us. Amy Montague, a vice president within Nike was “saddened” to hear about how it all came to an end with Allyson Felix. Internally, Nike had to deal with female employees who came forward to accuse the organization of harassment and marginalization. Because the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior, how Nike behaved towards Allyson Felix isn’t a surprise. As Felix wrote, “If, I, one of Nike’s most widely marketed athletes, couldn’t secure these protections, who could?”
Felix breaking Bolt’s record for the most World Championships has brought to light how Nike treats female athletes as it conflates pregnancy with diminished ability. Allyson Felix, however, sees it as a greater mission, aside from training for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
“Women are unstoppable. We are a force. We create life. We exist. And we have power. I want this moment to be shared with women all over the world. Use your voice. Speak your truth. Change the world.”