Less than two weeks after track champion Alysia Montaño spoke out about that blatant discrimination that she and other female athletes face from their sponsors — she called out Nike, specifically, for advertising to women to “Dream Crazy” while pulling the rug out from under pregnant athletes or new mothers — decorated Olympic runner Allyson Felix penned her own piece in the New York Times about her recent experiences as a Nike athlete.
Actually, she’s technically not a Nike athlete right now. “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?” she wrote, just half a year after undergoing an emergency C-section that saved the lives of her and her newborn. As with Montaño and other countless track and field athletes, the men negotiating her contract were unmoved. “Nike declined. We’ve been at a standstill ever since.” Not only did they refuse to offer her maternity protections; they also were hoping to negotiate with Felix a 70 percent pay cut.
Felix shared her story not as a way to shame Nike but to add her weight to the conversation surrounding maternity protections for female athletes. “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,” she wrote, and applauded Nike for announcing that they would be adjusting their contractual guarantees to better support their female athletes, following Montaño’s piece. “I look forward to specifics, from Nike and the rest of the industry who has yet to commit to contractually protecting women.”
Felix has been pushing for change outside of the track and field world as well. Earlier this month, she testified in front of Congress’s Ways & Means Committee about her high-risk pregnancy to emphasize how important it is for policymakers to address racial disparities in healthcare, especially in the context of maternal health. “Mothers don’t die from childbirth, right? Not in 2019, not professional athletes, not at one of the best hospitals in the country, and certainly not to women who have a birthing plan and a birthing suite lined up. I thought maternal health was solely about fitness, resources and care. If that was true, then why was this happening to me?”
Felix expressed her surprise in learning that black women are nearly four times more likely than white women to die from childbirth, and face nearly double the risk of having severe birth complications. This life-threatening risk underscores the need for underserved groups to be heard and get equitable access, response, and care during their pregnancies and births. “Racial bias is difficult, because it’s not as easy to spot as outright racism, but examples can be just as devastating,” Felix told the legislators. “To me there is no more important issue than what we’re talking about today.”