How An Olympian Stood Up To Nike To Force Change For Women In Sports
It’s not every day you see an olympic athlete go head to head with a global sports brand attempting to force change for others. That is what Allyson Felix did with Nike.
Allyson Felix graced the cover of Sports Illustrated as an 18 years old. She passed on a track scholarship to University of Southern California to go straight from high school to compete in pro track events. This is like LeBron James going from high school to the NBA as the number 1 pick.
Felix exceeded all expectations. She is a 9x Olympic gold medalist with 6 gold medals. She went on to win more world championships and Olympic titles than any other female track athlete in history. Nicknamed the “queen of the track,” Felix established herself as one of the greatest female athletes of our generation.
In the summer of 2018, Felix and her husband decided to start a family. She announced her decision to the world and what is supposed to be one of the happiest moments of a couple’s life, became a nightmare for Felix.
Felix began her negotiation with Nike. Nike was her lead sponsor for a decade and their initial offer came in at 70% less than her previous contract. The problem to Felix was that Nike was unwilling to contractually guarantee her reduced salary if her performance declined in the months surrounding her pregnancy.
Here is a quote by Felix on her thoughts. It is only going to take 20 seconds to read but it will give you a view of the challenges women face in sports due to the unique nature of their role as a mother.
For most of my life, I was focused on one thing: winning medals. And I was good at it. At 32, I was one of the most decorated athletes in history: a six-time Olympic gold medal winner and an 11-time world champion. But last year, my focus expanded: I wanted to be a professional athlete and a mother. In some ways, that dream was crazy.
I decided to start a family in 2018 knowing that pregnancy can be “the kiss of death” in my industry, as the runner Phoebe Wright put it in The Times last week. It was a terrifying time for me because I was negotiating a renewal of my Nike contract, which had ended in December 2017.
I felt pressure to return to form as soon as possible after the birth of my daughter in November 2018, even though I ultimately had to undergo an emergency C-section at 32 weeks because of severe pre-eclampsia that threatened the lives of me and my baby.
Meanwhile, negotiations were not going well. Despite all my victories, Nike wanted to pay me 70 percent less than before. If that’s what they think I’m worth now, I accept that.
What I’m not willing to accept is the enduring status quo around maternity. I asked Nike to contractually guarantee that I wouldn’t be punished if I didn’t perform at my best in the months surrounding childbirth. I wanted to set a new standard. If I, one of Nike’s most widely marketed athletes, couldn’t secure these protections, who could?
Nike declined. We’ve been at a standstill ever since.
Felix wasn’t fighting for herself. She was fighting for other women who aren’t elite and aren’t as marketable to Nike. What happens to them?
Felix ended her negotiations with Nike and signed a multi-year endorsement deal with Gap owned athleisure brand Athleta. In their first athlete endorsement ever, Athleta included maternity protection. She was branded as an “Athlete, Mother, and Activist.” for their global campaign.
As for Nike, the public pressure won out. Shortly after, Felix went public with New York Times. Nike announced a new maternity policy for all sponsored athletes. As of August 2019, all new and existing Nike endorsement contracts include guaranteed athlete pay and bonuses for 18 months around pregnancy.
Takeaway: It’s alway worth it to fight for what is right no matter how challenging it might seem. We have Allyson Felix to thank for that.