It’s been a little more than three weeks since Sarah Brown gave birth to her second daughter.
Between the tender coos of a newborn and the happy squeals of a toddler playing in the background, the former professional runner and New Balance team athlete is chatting by phone with FN about the pains and triumphs of life as a female track star.
Brown, who recently made the decision to retire from running in tandem with her plans to welcome baby No. 2, is taking this call on a hectic morning — preceded by the usual string of sleepless nights that often go hand in hand with parenting a newborn — because the issue at hand is a critical one.
“Obviously, when you decide to have kids, you have to sacrifice a lot of your body to that task,” Brown explained of the challenge many female athletes face at some point in their careers. “Also, in athletics, you’re sacrificing your body. So there’s a lot of conflict between pursuing those two things.”
In the #MeToo era, as more and more women are compelled to publicly address perceived personal and professional injustices, a steady stream of previously obscure challenges facing small and large numbers of women continue to find their way into mainstream discourse.
The newest conversation was ignited by a New York Times article over the weekend that called attention to an apparent discrepancy in the way some athletic brands — Nike in particular — have, at least at one time, written their contracts for female track and field athletes. (The story suggested that Nike reduced the payments of female runners — and sometimes paid them nothing at all — if they were unable to compete for various reasons, including pregnancy and the subsequent postpartum period.)
The article named two former Nike-sponsored female runners, Kara Goucher and Alysia Montaño. The latter turned her former sponsor’s “Dream Crazier” slogan against it by describing what she deemed a disconnect between the brand’s positive female-centric marketing and its maternity leave policy for athletes it sponsored. (Goucher and Montaño described having their contracts reduced by Nike during their pregnancies and/or postpartum period.)
At a time when a record number of women are serving in U.S. Congress and a growing list of major companies — including Nike — have made gender diversity and pay equity a key strategic priority, the situation for many is a painful reminder of the work that remains.
“I was just stunned when I heard about this,” said Matt Powell, VP and senior industry advisor for The NPD Group. “It speaks to just how powerless some of these athletes really are and how some of these brands are exploiting them.”
For its part, Nike admitted that it had previously reduced its payments to female athletes — although it did not explain the circumstances — but noted that it has since amended its policy.
“Nike is proud to sponsor thousands of female athletes. As is common practice in our industry, our agreements do include performance-based payment reductions,” the company said in a statement. “Historically, a few female athletes had performance-based reductions applied. We recognized that there was inconsistency in our approach across different sports, and in 2018 we standardized our approach across all sports so that no female athlete is penalized financially for pregnancy.”
Insiders told FN that it is indeed an industry standard for brands to reserve the right to reduce payments to sponsored track and field athletes if they do not compete in the sport for a certain period of time — usually six months. However, when and why a brand chooses to activate that clause is critical.
In response to a request for comment, several athletic brands, including Under Armour, New Balance and Asics told FN that they honor the contracts of sponsored female athletes throughout the duration of their pregnancy and return to competition. (Both UA and New Balance also noted that they have never previously reduced contracts for female athletes.)
“Under Armour has always supported and has not reduced payment for our female athletes during pregnancy,” the Baltimore-based brand told FN in an email statement. “We are proud of our continued support of our female athletes, before, during and after their pregnancies.” (Two runners on the label’s roster, Natasha Hastings and Alison Désir, have recently announced their pregnancies.)
Brown, meanwhile, noted that having consistent support — and compensation — from New Balance throughout her journey to motherhood was critical to her long-term emotional and physical health.
“There are companies out there that go at this process a lot differently — even with support through injuries,” she said. “There’s a clear difference when you invest in the person than when they just invest in the performance. New Balance invests in the person — you’re going to succeed in your career and goals when you feel supported and balanced.”
When it comes to the future of female track athletes, Brown said she’s happy to see this conversation enter the limelight, as it could prove to be a powerful negotiation tool for new runners.
“A college-aged female coming out of school signing a contract with a company may not be thinking about [pregnancy] right away, but it is the [kind of thing] that should be addressed and considered upfront,” Brown explained. “It’s something that needs to be addressed so that we can make progress in how companies handle it. We need to get information out to other women so they can know they’re not alone and can speak out.”