For years, Nike has marketed itself as a company committed to supporting professional female athletes and encouraging young girls to play sports. The company is known for its powerful advertisements portraying female athletes from all ethnic backgrounds, a range of age groups and different languages.
Each advertisement has a different argument, such as the “Dream Crazier” commercial, which pointed to the double standards between men and women in sports. Or, a Nike Women Turkey advertisement contrasting women in their expected traditional roles with their barrier-breaking, athletic personas.
Nike effectively features its famous sponsors in commercials, such as the USA Women’s Soccer team, tennis player Serena Williams, and football player Colin Kapernick, to further legitimize its message. Until recently, this feminist narrative has gone unchallenged.
Nike’s image has been seriously contradicted in recent months. Just last week, runner Mary Cain accused the head coach of Nike’s Oregon Project, a world-class training track and field training program, of physically and emotionally abusing her.
At age 17, Cain was already making waves in the world of track and field. She had broken records. She was the youngest American track and field athlete to make it to the World Championships. She had earned a spot to compete in the Olympic Trials. In 2013, she signed on to Nike’s Oregon Project under Alberto Salazar.
A day after the New York Times article was published, the Times released another article citing two other sources who confirmed that they had experiences similar to Cain’s at the Oregon Project.
This is not the first time Nike is dealing with hypocrisy between their image as a company in favor of female empowerment and the claims of women who have worked closely with the company. In 2018, a group of women working in the Nike Headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon, complained of the toxic environment toward women at Nike and claimed that several men had engaged in misconduct toward women. The revolt led to the resignation of at least six men, including the CEO.
Earlier this year, in a New York Times “Op-doc,” runner Alysia Montaño directly contradicted Nike’s “Dream Crazier” ad campaign, encouraging women to push boundaries in sports, with her own experience as a Nike sponsor. When she got pregnant, Nike paused her contract and stopped paying her.
Female athletes and employees using the press to bring light to their grievances against powerful sports institutions, though fairly novel, is not unique to Nike.
In 2016, two former gymnasts accused former USA Gymnastics physician Larry Nassar of sexual abuse. He plead guilty for sexually abusing seven women, and was convicted to a life sentence in early 2018. Since then, 175 victims have come forward with accusations against Nassar.
The two women who came forward both gave separate interviews to the IndyStar, the paper that broke the story.
Earlier this year, professional figure skater Ashley Wagner published an op-ed in USA Today, sharing an incident in which she was sexually abused by a fellow skater. She points to the unusual and uncomfortable culture of professional figure skating, in which adult skaters and teenaged skaters are in the same social circle, spending an unhealthy amount of time together.
The media has been a common conduit to publicize one’s experiences with sexual abuse, most notably the social media #MeToo movement. However, the Op-docs accusing Nike of misconduct, the IndyStar interviews and Wagner’s Op-Ed in USA Today have notably not been on social media. Rather, the news media has been a prominent outlet for women to call attention to their stories.