Nike's new ad celebrating pregnant athletes falls flat, given its own history of mistreating them

Shalise Manza Young
·Yahoo Sports Columnist
·6 min read

One of the fascinating things about how some entities behave is their utter disregard for their previous actions, or their inability to realize a few clicks or a short search can call them up quickly.

Case in point: Nike.

On Sunday, the global retailing giant posted an ad to its Twitter and Instagram accounts, perhaps to recognize Mother's Day in the United Kingdom. In Nike's now-familiar style, the ad features lots of "regular" women, in various stages of pregnancy and early motherhood, doing athletic things, along with some well-known female athletes who are mothers, like Serena Williams, world champion hurdler Nia Ali, and U.S. Women's National Team stalwart Alex Morgan.

This content is not available due to your privacy preferences.
Update your settings here to see it.

On its face, it's empowering. It's beautiful. Even for those of us whose best days as an athlete came before we became mothers, it's glorious to see pregnancy and motherhood celebrated that way, and underscore that you can and should be active while you're creating life.

But for anyone who's paid attention, it rings very hollow.

Google "Nike pregnancy" and right at the top of the results are two New York Times op-eds that the corporation seems to believe don't exist. Or we've forgotten. Or will ignore because they made a glossy 60-second video.

Less than two years ago, Nike faced severe backlash after multiple of its sponsored track and field athletes — first World Championships medalist Alysia Montaño and Olympian Kara Goucher, and then Allyson Felix, the most decorated American track athlete ever — revealed in the New York Times that the company penalized them financially for becoming pregnant, stopping payments while they were unable to compete.

Nike's new motherhood ad is tone-deaf in light of how the retailing giant has treated its athletes while they were pregnant, like track star Alllyson Felix. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
Nike's new motherhood ad is tone-deaf in light of how the retailing giant has treated its athletes while they were pregnant, like track star Alllyson Felix. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

The language in their contracts said Nike could reduce an athlete's pay "for any reason," and there was no exception for pregnancy or childbirth.

Montaño made national headlines in 2014 when she ran the 800 meters at the U.S.A. Track & Field national championships while eight months pregnant. She did it to show that you could still be an elite runner and a mom, but behind the scenes, she'd recently split from Nike after the company said it was fine if she got pregnant. "We'll just pause your contract and stop paying you," is what Montaño says she was told at the time.

She signed with Asics, and it was the Asics logo that Montaño was wearing on her bright pink racing singlet that covered her baby bump for that national championship race. But Asics wasn't much better than Nike, threatening to stop paying her as well and demanding she return to competition quickly after the birth of her daughter. At just six months postpartum, wearing tape over her midsection to support her still-healing torn abdominal muscles, Montaño ran and won the 600 meters at the U.S. indoor national championships.

Goucher, one of the best female American long-distance runners of the last 20 years, got pregnant in 2010, a year after finishing third at the 2009 Boston Marathon. Despite her proven record of success — and a Nike exec taking her and her husband out to dinner to celebrate their pregnancy — she too was told by Nike that she wouldn't get paid until she returned to racing. Goucher returned to training almost immediately, running 100 miles a week just two months after her son Colton was born because of Nike's stance.

Felix and her husband made the decision to start a family after her double-gold medal performance at the 2017 World Championships. Her contract with Nike was up at the end of that year, and she was pregnant in the early months of 2018. Negotiations were not going well, with Nike wanting to pay Felix 70 percent of what it had been paying her previously, despite no real decline in her performance.

When she asked for pregnancy protections, and also for her pay to stay the same even if her performance wasn't up to her usual standard in the months after childbirth, Felix was told no.

Nike has since announced a change to its contracts with the female athletes it sponsors after fierce backlash. In an August 2019 letter, the company said it will not apply any performance-related reductions for a period of 18 months for pregnant athletes, with the period beginning eight months before her due date.

Alysia Montaño competed in the 2014 USA Track and Field Championships while pregnant.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Alysia Montaño competed in the 2014 USA Track and Field Championships while pregnant. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Still, it's not surprising that Felix, Montaño and Goucher didn't have a warm and fuzzy reaction to Nike's new video.

"I think you should watch this ad," Felix tweeted. "It reminds mothers that they are athletes. It celebrates mothers ... I also think you should watch this ad so that you will hold Nike accountable for it.

"It was also hard to watch. My experience, along with many others, forced NIKE to support athlete's maternity, and when I watch this ad, it doesn’t seem to acknowledge that war.

"This ad is beautiful and heartbreaking. It celebrates all of the right things but seems to ignore the struggle it took to get to this point."

Montaño, meanwhile, took to Instagram for her reaction.

"We want Nike to sponsor athletes and support them through pregnancy, and thereafter, but we want them to acknowledge the fight and the struggle that it took to get them to make a change," she wrote. "We DO NOT WANT them to use our women to make money and while doing so forcing their athletes that have been mistreated to post advertisements as a way of sweeping their struggles under the rug. Gaslight much?"

Goucher replied to a comment on Nike's Instagram post of the video.

"I appreciate that they have made changes," she wrote, "but I have received no apology or acknowledgement from Nike on how I and many other mother athletes were treated. Or received the pay they withheld from me. But I am happy to see the improvement and hopefully the next generation won't have to suffer the way I and so many other athletes did."

Goucher also posted photos of herself on her own IG stories — one pregnant, one holding Colton in the hospital when he was born, another asleep next to him when he was hospitalized for an infection, and two when he was a baby and she had just finished a race. For each one, she said she was not being paid by Nike at the time the photo was taken.

Nike wants to celebrate pregnant athletes now. It already blew its chance to just do it sooner.

More from Yahoo Sports: