Olympic sprinter Allyson Felix was mortified when she was asked to participate in a female-empowerment ad for Nike while in the midst of negations surrounding maternity protections with the company.
"I was like, this is just beyond disrespectful and tone-deaf," she told Time magazine in a profile published Thursday.
Felix has long accused Nike of being unsupportive of pregnant women and new mothers which she detailed in 2019 with the New York Times: "If we have children, we risk pay cuts from our sponsors during pregnancy and afterward. It's one example of a sports industry where the rules are still mostly made for and by men."
In the co-op with the NYT that her decision to start a family in 2018, she said the pregnancy would be the "kiss of death" for her career as a runner: "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 thirty-two weeks because of severe preeclampsia that threatened the lives of me and my baby," she told the New York Times.
After the expiration of her contract in December 2017, she fell pregnant and tried to negotiate a new deal with the famous sports brand. According to Insider: "She said Nike offered her a seventy percent pay cut in the new contract and failed to explicitly support maternity protections she requested in the contract."
Felix ultimately left Nike and signed with Athleta, a women-focused apparel company, instead. She's also started her own shoe and lifestyle brand, Saysh.
Speaking to TIME, she said Nike can sometimes make you feel like you have no other option. This means "they can get away with stuff like that because, where are you going to go? And I think that's how I was always perceived: 'She's never going to say anything. She's never going to speak out.'"
Since Felix began speaking out about the treatment of pregnancy for athletes, Nike has expanded its payment protections for pregnant women and new mothers the company told TIME.
Motherhood looks different for everyone. But no matter what you do or how you do it, you are the toughest athlete.
— Nike (@Nike) May 7, 2021
"We're always learning and growing in how to best support our female athletes," Nike told TIME in a statement. "For example, in 2018 we standardized our approach across all sports to support our female athletes during pregnancy. While the specifics of each situation are unique, the policy waived performance reductions for twelve months."
However, not long after, Felix received a request from Nike to participate in an ad campaign celebrating female empowerment. She told TIME: "my stomach dropped."
The athlete explained that she couldn't understand the inconsistency, that the company wanted to send a public message to women could achieve their dreams in sport, while in private that same sports brand was resisting language that could help future female athletes start families during their careers.
"Athletes are told to shut up and play. We are told that no one cares about our politics. We are told that we're just entertainers, so run fast, jump high, and throw far. And don't mess up."