A recent video released by The New York Times reveals that female runners who are pregnant while under contract can be denied a salary or health insurance. These sponsors agree to paid time off for injuries, yet fail to do so for pregnant runners. Companies like Nike and Asics publicly support their runners that are mothers, yet often fail to do so in their contracts, where they have confidentiality clauses to prevent runners from talking about any issues they might have with outsiders. Since the women are considered independent contractors, they are not protected under regular laws protecting their rights in the workplace.
Alyssa Montano used to be sponsored by Nike. When she became pregnant with her daughter, she continued to run, despite Nike telling her that they wanted to pause her contract and stop paying her. Even more serious, is the fact that at the Olympic level women are denied health insurance if they don’t stay at the top of their game, for example, the top five in a certain competition. During pregnancy and even after, female runners are constantly threatened with losing their pay.
Athletes like Phoebe Wright, a runner sponsored by Nike from 2010-2016 addressed the stigma surrounding pregnant athletes. “Getting pregnant is the kiss of death for a female athlete. There’s no way I’d tell Nike if I were pregnant,” she said.
According to a 2019 Nike Track and Field contract, the company has the right to reduce an athlete’s pay for any reason if they don’t meet a specific performance level. There are no exceptions for childbirth, pregnancy, or maternity.
The fear of losing pay and health care coverage often leads these women to do things that may not be healthy or safe. One Olympic athlete had to choose between running 120 miles a week to continue training or breast-feed her son because her body couldn’t handle both. While she was pregnant, she learned that Nike was going to cut her pay, so she scheduled a half-marathon three months after giving birth. Her son got seriously ill and she had to choose between restarting her pay or being there for her son. She continued training, despite deeply regretting it.
Nike has acknowledged that some pregnant athletes had their pay reduced around pregnancy. The company introduced new policies last year changing its approach so that pregnant athletes no longer face penalties, but didn’t say whether they offer legal guarantees for female athletes around pregnancy.
The United States Olympic Committee says their health insurance policy covers pregnancy and maternity but didn’t cover whether athletes lose eligibility if they can’t race due to childbirth and pregnancy.
Montano’s story and others like hers have started to inspire change with some sponsors who are changing the language in their contracts to protect women during and after pregnancy. One can only hope the other sponsors follow suit.
Featured Image by Ed Uthman on Flickr.