Nike is good at branding. It’s impossible to hear the name and not think of the swoosh logo and any number of its tear-inducing ad spots. Lately, these advertisements specifically center on women in sports. Serena Williams starred in one such ad, which aired in February, in which she detailed how “having a baby and then coming back for more” might make her seem “crazy.”
In this case, pregnancy is a potent metaphor for Nike’s advertising aims: It involves a tedious physical transformation that comes built in with a life-changing payoff. In a way, it mirrors the immense physical feats performed by athletes. But branding exercises say little about how a company operates—a hypocrisy reflected, specifically, this week, in Nike’s treatment of pregnant professional athletes. Alysia Montaño, who became known as the “pregnant runner” when she competed in the United States Championships while eight months pregnant in 2014, told the New York Times in an opinion documentary that Nike said it would “pause” her contract and stop paying her if she wanted to have a baby. The threat wasn’t limited to Nike: after Montaño left Nike and went to Asics, Asics too threatened to stop paying her while she was recovering from her pregnancy.
In a statement to the Times, Nike acknowledged that “a few female athletes had performance based reductions applied” to their contracts, and that in 2018, the company “standardized [its] approach across all sports so that no female athelete is penalized financially for pregnancy.” But according to the Times’s reporting, a Nike track and field contract from this year did not contain any language around childbirth, pregnancy, or maternity.
While juxtaposition of Nike’s branding and policies are duplicitous, the schism isn’t exclusive to the world of sports; plenty of brands and CEOs co-opt the language of women’s empowerment to sell more shit, while privately discriminating against pregnant employees. In 2016, the Washington Post found that the contractor that designs Ivanka Trump’s clothing line had no paid maternity leave plan to speak of for its employees. Planned Parenthood, an organization dedicated to delivering health care, has been accused of poor treatment of its pregnant workers. Discriminating against pregnant workers, while technically illegal, is pervasive in the U.S. workforce—a problem that won’t be solved without mass cultural change and robust paid parental leave policies.
Nike, like many companies, loves to signal its support of women with marketing, but internal change requires more then a video budget and celebrities—it demands a meaningful commitment from the company to stand by the star athletes it loves to parade around as its spokespeople.