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Olympic Track Star Rebukes Sponsorship Pay Penalties For Pregnant Athletes


Alysia Montano is an Olympian and a U.S. champion. You might remember her as the pregnant runner. She competed in 2014 when she was eight months pregnant with her first child. Two weeks ago, Montano made headlines again when, in a video for The New York Times, she called out the sports industry in general and sponsors like Nike and ASICS in particular for cutting off pay and health benefits to female athletes when they take time off to give birth and recover. That encouraged other women athletes to speak out about their experiences with sponsors. We called Montano to ask her to tell us more, starting with the financial realities of competing in track and field.

ALYSIA MONTANO: We're not paid a huge salary by a league at all. Instead, our income comes almost exclusively from sponsorship deals with inked apparel companies, like Nike and ASICS, that keeps them bound for three to five years. And we don't get rich.

MARTIN: No, point taken. Well, when you decided to have a baby, like, what happened? I mean, did you tell your contact at Nike? Did your agent speak to them? Like, what happened?

MONTANO: Back in 2012, I just finished the Olympic year. And I finished fifth at the Olympics. I noted hey, you know, you guys, it's - I'm looking at my contract here, and there aren't any protections in place. And they would not provide me with what would happen to me. That led us to kind of seeking out other options. ASICS came into play and kind of stated the same thing. Hey, I plan on expanding my family. ASICS at the time had said, we appreciate full athletes. Come over here. And so I did. I finished a year with them in which I finished with a bronze medal at world championships.

And so in that off-year, I'd hoped that we would conceive and be able to have our daughter and return to the sport. And I did conceive. I did have my daughter. And my daughter was two months old. And I got a phone call that said, I want to talk about your contracts in regard to your performance this year - which means - you mean the year that I've been with child? And then I was - my payment was reduced.

MARTIN: And what about your health benefits? I mean, that was another thing that emerged in the reporting on this is that there are athletes whose health insurance was terminated. And I can't think a very thing - many things more frightening than either being pregnant or having a child or having a newborn with no health insurance - summarily terminated. So what about you? Did you at least have health insurance to cover the delivery or the postpartum period?

MONTANO: Yes. So the way that it works is a tier system. The luck that I did have with my daughter was I fell within the tier system because I made the Olympic team in 2012, and the protection was there for me. Now, if I didn't make the Olympic team in 2012 and I became pregnant, I would lose my health insurance. My point and my stance is this should not be because I am an Olympian. This needs to be something that is in place for women athletes regardless.

MARTIN: I mean, this whole question of women and their reproductive choices is very much in the news right now. And I just have to ask you very directly, do you feel that you are getting messages from your sport that if you want to be a top-tier athlete, you should not have children?

MONTANO: Yes, absolutely. Before I had my daughter, I had a few examples of women that I looked up to who had returned to sport. I was very excited about - one of them being Kara Goucher. She talked about the difficult part of her motherhood and in resuming training and how she went on all these unpaid appearances with Nike. And her son ends up being extremely ill. And she, you know, she ends up having to leave him while he was dangerously ill to go compete at a race to restart her pay.

And that, to me, is a very strong message, like, your family is not first. Running and the sport is first regardless of - and also, we want you to prove to us, are you as focused, are you as dedicated? And the message is being sent that, if you're a serious athlete, you do not want to be a mother, and motherhood is not for serious athletes.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, I do have to ask. There are those who will say it just isn't their job. In fact, this is an argument that came up during the discussions over reauthorizing the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare. There were those who said during testimony well, you know, I'm a man, why should I pay for maternity benefits? It's not my problem. It has nothing to do with me. So for people who feel that way, that, you know what, it's a private decision, there isn't any broader social responsibility to support this. You know, what would you say?

MONTANO: Of course that's what somebody would say that. It's oozing with privilege, right? When we look at women's issues, women's rights, this is a scope in which a man should not have any say on. And I think that it's so asinine for people to - men in particular - to think, like, this is a personal issue. This is something that is true in the world. It's - it can only happen to women. Men will never have to face pregnancy ever. And the people who are going to talk about policies and these protections are going to be men.

MARTIN: Is it true that all the people who negotiate these contracts at Nike are men?

MONTANO: They're all men that are - within house at Nike have been and are all men. It's an old boys club. The culture at Nike is - that's - it remains to be an old boys club. And this is the time for it to be exposed. You know, the time is now.

MARTIN: That was Olympian and former USA champion Alysia Montano. Alysia Montano, thank you so much for talking to us.

MONTANO: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: After we spoke with Montano, two news organizations reported that a Nike vice president, in a memo to staff, said the company was eliminating a performance requirement for 12 months for those athletes who decide to have a baby.

So we called Alysia Montano back to get her reaction. And she told us she wants to acknowledge movement on this issue, but she has not yet seen an actual contract. She says she wants to make sure Nike writes this protection into the contracts of new and current female athletes because, she says, track and field athletes tend to sign contracts before they are the age in which women typically start thinking about having families, and by the time they do, they are locked into contracts without protections for maternity leave. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.