Nike’s ad for its first dedicated maternity line is undeniably powerful, a celebration of a mother’s strength and a resounding affirmation that yes, moms can be and are athletes. “If you aren’t, no one is,” Nike says in the ad, flashing clips of Serena Williams celebrating a victory and soccer star Alex Morgan practicing while pregnant, and sprinter Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce winning a race not long after giving birth.
As with all Nike ads, it pulls hard on the heartstrings, making you feel powerful and inspired just watching. But many people also picked up a whiff of hypocrisy in the slickly produced segment. It wasn’t that long ago, after all, that Allyson Felix — a nine-time Olympic medalist and 13-time world champion — was fighting for her livelihood after Nike refused to contractually agree not to punish her if she didn’t perform at her best in the months after she gave birth to her daughter, Camryn, in November 2018. (Felix suffered from preeclampsia during pregnancy and Camryn was born prematurely via emergency C-section.) Felix came forward about her experience in a New York Times essay in May 2019, noting, “If [athletes] have children, we risk pay cuts from our sponsors during pregnancy and afterward.” Because Felix and her former Nike teammates Alysia Montaño and Kara Goucher went public about their mistreatment by Nike while pregnant, the company eventually expanded protections for pregnant athletes.
But for many fans and athletes, that doesn’t give Nike a blank slate to promote pregnant athletes or athletes who are moms like nothing ever happened. Watching the ad, you’d never know that Nike played a part in holding these kinds of athletes down — and that’s a problem.
“I think you should watch this ad,” Felix wrote on Twitter. “It reminds mothers that they are athletes. It celebrates mothers.” But it was also “hard to watch,” she said, before pinpointing the issue: “My experience, along with many others, forced Nike to support athlete’s maternity, and when I watch this ad, it doesn’t seem to acknowledge that war.” It celebrates the brilliance of these athletes “but seems to ignore the struggle it took to get to this point.”
Responding on her Instagram Stories, Goucher said she appreciates the changes the brand has made, “but I have received no apology or acknowledgment from Nike on how I and many other mother athletes were treated. Or received the pay they withheld from me.” Meanwhile, runner Colleen Quigley admitted she couldn’t watch the ad “without thinking of the women who had to suffer under Nike in order to become mothers before Allyson decided to put her foot down and demand change.”
Paralympian Lacey J. Henderson added: “Ummmm I felt like ad was a *little late* and maybe could have offered some acknowledgment of [Nike’s] past behavior?”
A well-made Nike ad can make you feel powerful, but that fleeting sense of strength means nothing if the policies aren’t there to back it up. Nike is making moves in the right direction, but its mistreatment of pregnant athletes hasn’t been forgotten and won’t go undetected again — and that’s why Felix spoke out, yesterday and in 2019. She added, “I also think you should watch this ad so that you will hold Nike accountable for it.”