Nike eliminates wage reductions while pregnant after taking heat from runners like Allyson Felix

FILE - In this July 27, 2019, file photo, Allyson Felix holds her daughter Camryn after running the women's 400-meter dash final at the U.S. Championships athletics meet in Des Moines, Iowa. These days, sprinter Allyson Felix is racing for more than just medals. The six-time Olympic gold medalist is campaigning for the rights of mothers after giving birth in November. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)
Allyson Felix spoke out against Nike after she gave birth to her daughter, Camryn, and faced potential wage reductions for it. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)

Nike announced in a letter to its athletes a change to its maternity policy following backlash from Olympians, including Allyson Felix, who criticized the company for pay reductions during and after childbirth.

Company executive John Slusher signed the letters sent to Nike’s sponsored athletes some time this week. The letter, dated Aug. 12, was first shared by ESPN’s Emmanuel Acho and reported by Sports Illustrated.

Nike eliminates wage reductions during pregnancy

Nike’s policy instituted in 2018 guaranteed protections for 12 months, a spokesperson told Sports Illustrated, though it was reportedly never written into contracts. When its runners began to speak out about the policy in May, stating their pay was reduced and the timeline to return to earn it back strict, Nike announced upcoming changes.

The updated policy, which Nike said is effective immediately, will waive any performance reduction for a total of 18 months.

The new policy reads:

"If ATHLETE becomes pregnant, NIKE may not apply any performance-related reductions (if any) for a consecutive period of 18 months, beginning eight months prior to ATHLETE's due date. During such period NIKE may not apply any right of termination (if any) as a result of ATHLETE not competing due to pregnancy."

In a statement, Nike said athletes will receive written confirmation of the change. There was no language for if suspensions will apply for those who don’t compete over a certain period of time, which is in athletes’ contracts.

Track and field athletes speak out

American runners Alysia Montaño and Kara Goucher first called out Nike in an op-ed for the New York Times titled “Nike Told Me to Dream Crazy, Until I Wanted a Baby.

Montaño, a three-time U.S. national champion felt she was forced to return too quickly to get a paycheck and it impacted her mentally and physically. Goucher had a similar experience and was forced to choose between a race to restart her pay or being with her ill 3-month-old child in the hospital.

Athletes in individual sports such as track and field do not receive a salary and instead make money almost exclusively from sponsorship deals. Nike could reduce pay “for any reason,” per the New York Times, if the athlete doesn’t meet a performance threshold. There are no exceptions.

Felix speaks out, leaves Nike

Felix delivered her baby at 32 weeks via emergency C-section due to medial issues that threatened both mother and child. It was a difficult birth to recover from and she had a child in the NICU, but she still had to worry about losing a paycheck.

The nine-time Olympic medalist, including an Olympic-record six golds, wondered how others could get contract protections if even she couldn’t. She told Yahoo Sports that Nike offered a 70 percent reduction in pay after her childbirth while negotiating a new contract and wouldn’t contractually guarantee her wages wouldn’t be reduced if she didn’t perform highly enough in the months afterward.

The nine-time Olympic medalist, including an Olympic record six golds, signed a deal this summer with Athleta instead that will pay her the same regardless of if she is pregnant.

“It’s a different approach to sponsorship,” Felix told Yahoo Sports. “They are really excited to support me holistically. As an athlete, a mother and an activist.”

How do other companies handle pregnancy?

Nike is the leader in sponsoring track and field athletes. Felix became Athleta’s first sponsored athlete. It was notable since the fitness apparel brand, owned by Gap, Inc., is geared specifically toward women.

Natasha Hastings, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, told The Undefeated earlier this year she was worried about telling her sponsor, Under Armour, she was pregnant. They’ve been together since 2012 and the company continues to sponsor her as she runs after a spot in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Hastings had her child this week, less than one year before the games begin. She told The Undefeated fellow sponsors New York Athletic Club and various cosmetic and feminine care product companies also stayed with her.

Burton, known as the snowboarding company, announced after the op-ed it would contractually guarantee there would be no pay reductions for athletes who have children. Altra, Brooks and Nuun Hydration, which continues to add female athletes as sponsors, did as well.

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