How Allyson Felix's Record-Breaking Win Is Also a Major Win for Maternity Leave
After clashing with Nike over protection for pregnancy, the elite runner and new mom scored her first gold medal since giving birth and broke her tie with Usain Bolt for the most gold medals in world championships history.
Six-time Olympic gold medalist Allyson Felix just broke a jaw-dropping record: Late last month, she was part of the winning U.S. quartet in the first world championships mixed-gender 4x400m relay, an event that makes its Olympic debut next year. The win caused her to break her tie with Usain Bolt for the most gold medals in world championships history—a total of 12.
The victory might feel even sweeter for the decorated track and field athlete because it comes on the heels of another, more politically-charged win. While pregnant and after giving birth to her daughter Camryn on November 28, 2018, Felix clashed with Nike over their lack of maternal protection. In December 2017, after seven years with the brand, her contract had expired without being renewed, in part because the two parties didn't agree on pay protection for pregnancy.
In May 2019, Felix wrote an op-ed in The New York Times that explained the ordeal, which Nike-sponsored Olympian runners Alysia Montaño and Kara Goucher had broken their nondisclosure agreements to speak out against, as well. "If we have children, we risk pay cuts from our sponsors during pregnancy and afterward," Felix wrote. "It’s one example of a sports industry where the rules are still mostly made for and by men."
She went onto note that "pregnancy can be 'the kiss of death' in my industry, as the runner Phoebe Wright put it in The Times last week" and that she 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 32 weeks because of severe preeclampsia that threatened the lives of me and my baby."
She recalled that Nike wanted to pay her 70 percent less than before. "If that’s what they think I’m worth now, I accept that," she wrote. "What I’m not willing to accept is the enduring status quo around maternity. 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? Nike declined. We’ve been at a standstill ever since."
Fast-forward to August, when Nike sent Felix a letter offering an update to the company's policies on female atheletes and pregnancy. The new language read, "If ATHLETE becomes pregnant, NIKE may not apply any performance-related reductions (if any) for a consecutive period of 18 months, beginning eight months prior to ATHLETE's due date. During such period, NIKE may not apply any right of termination (if any) as a result of ATHLETE not competing due to pregnancy."
Alongside a post of the letter on Instagram, Felix wrote, "Our voices have power. NIKE has joined in officially and contractually providing maternal protection to the female athletes they sponsor. This means that female athletes will no longer be financially penalized for having a child."
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It took less than two months for the proud new mom to show NIKE exactly what they'd be missing out on if they didn't offer these protections—and that's some serious, gold medal-winning, record-breaking badassery. Her win will have reverberating effects for female athletes and, with hope, women in other industries, as well.
As Felix put it in her Times op-ed, "Protection during maternity isn’t just limited to Olympians; working women all over the U.S. deserve protection when they have children. We shouldn’t have to rely on companies to do the right thing. Our families depend on it."