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Culture

Nike Claims To Support Female Athletes But Fails To Empower Sponsored Women

By Molly Farinholt·· 5 min read
nike ad
Nike 2018

Nike, the multi-billion dollar sportswear company that sponsors high-profile athletes and teams around the world, boasts a very convincing campaign to support women. However, despite ads featuring “badass” females, the corporation fails to empower true femininity - as seen in their treatment of sponsored athletes who choose motherhood.

In 2019, the all-powerful Nike empire received much backlash for the way in which it treated its sponsored female runners. In an article for the New York Times, Olympian Alysia Montano revealed the difficulties that Nike’s pregnant athletes face, including pressures to race and reduced contracts. While we can’t fault a company for reducing pay for reduced performance, athletes such as Alysia Montano and Kara Goucher undoubtedly do find themselves facing tough decisions under such sponsorship.

Nike Cuts Pay to Pregnant Athletes 

At the time that Montano wrote the aforementioned article, Nike had admitted to reducing sponsorship payments for some of its pregnant athletes. Under contract, any athlete could have pay reduced due to underperformance (with no contingencies for pregnancy). Thus, athletes such as Montano and Goucher felt the pressure to race both during pregnancy and shortly after giving birth. Montano famously raced in the 2014 US Championships while eight months pregnant (which likely sounds insane to any woman who has experienced the third trimester of pregnancy). 

Female athletes, such as Montano and Goucher, felt the pressure to race both during pregnancy and shortly after giving birth.

While athletes in this position could choose to simply walk away from their sponsorship, it could make it exceedingly difficult to regain sponsorship at a later time. This could also act as a very unfortunate deterrent for many sponsored women to choose to start a family. 

Since the article was originally published, Nike underwent severe criticism and a congressional inquiry, prompting them to introduce a new maternity policy that guarantees pay for the 18 months surrounding an athlete’s pregnancy. However, this does not relieve the pressure on athletes to get back into peak conditioning very shortly after delivering their child. Even with this new policy, motherhood is still not truly supported by Nike. 

Altra Running Steps In

In early February, another running shoe company, Altra Running, signed two new female athletes, Alysia Montano and Tina Muir - both of whom were pregnant. Altra Running is already known for being an avant-garde company, producing running shoes that challenge traditional models. This bold move, then, is not wholly unexpected, but it certainly does pave a new path for female athletes. 

Altra publicly recognizes that athletic achievement is not the most important thing that a female athlete can or will do.

When Muir announced her sponsorship on Instagram, she praised Altra for supporting women at every stage of life. She wrote, “Pregnancy hormones probably don’t help with my emotional reaction to what @altrarunning has done for the women’s running industry with this decision to sign full contracts to support @alysiamontano and I monetarily...But moves like this, taking action to show that not only do Altra SAY they support women through pregnancy and maternity, but they DO something about it, well, it speaks for itself.”

In contrast with Nike, Altra’s decision to promote motherhood is a breath of fresh air. In signing Montano and Muir (while pregnant), Altra publicly recognizes that athletic achievement is not the most important thing that a female athlete can or will do. They have opened up a door for women, encouraging motherhood as a wonderful and powerful choice rather than a risky, career-ending one. 

Mothers and Champions

Alysia Montano, who represented the United States in the 2012 Olympics, has seven U.S. gold medals and three beautiful children. More so than almost any female athlete, she champions femininity by placing her children on a pedestal and always racing with a flower in her hair. She proves that women can be strong, but that feminine strength doesn’t necessarily look the same as masculine strength. 

In 2019, she launched her campaign “Dream Maternity” which encourages women to pursue a life that encompasses all of their gifts and talents - such as motherhood and athletics. Previously sponsored by both Nike and Asics, Alysia announced in early February of this year that she had signed with Altra. She captioned an Instagram post that featured her, fellow signee Tina Muir, and their two baby bumps, “Sponsored? While pregnant?! Yeah... We’re doing it!” Less than a month later, on February 26, Montano gave birth to her baby boy, Lennox. 

She proves that women can be strong - but that feminine strength does not necessarily look the same as masculine strength.

Tina Muir, mother, elite British marathoner, and brain behind a popular podcast, garnered much attention in May 2017 after People Magazine published an article about her battle to walk away from professional running, recover from an eating disorder, and get pregnant. After representing Great Britain at Worlds, she felt that running was not her sole purpose in life and decided to shift her focus to another goal: motherhood. In January 2018, she gave birth to her daughter. She is now pregnant again and due in June. Muir has become a voice for change in the world of women’s running; she advocates for a balanced approach to the sport - one centered on joy, not the finish line. 

Great Strides for Women

In a world where many equate a woman's worth with what she does, a company willing to support women for who they are is inspiring and laudable. Altra, like Nike and so many other companies, could have reasonably overlooked Montano and Muir for their current inability to deliver podium-worthy performances. Instead, Altra chose to elevate two women for their selfless decisions to temporarily set aside their athletic careers for the sake of bringing new life into this world. 

Closing Thoughts

While Nike talks of empowering women with ads that focus solely on females’ dreams to equal men on the playing field, Altra has taken a concrete step to champion women for their whole femininity. The message that our innate, uniquely female capabilities are to be extolled is far more powerful than the message that, if one dreams crazily enough, she may become as athletically skilled as her male counterparts. A woman is far more than any medal hung about her neck or laurel wreath placed upon her head. 

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