It’s time to talk about Nike
Warning: This article contains mentions of sensitive topics including eating disorders, suicide and self-harm.
"They're a brand that wants to sell shoes, and they're going to sell it with lies, and they're going to sell it with cheating. They're going to sell it in any way that they can."
— Mary Cain, former Nike-sponsored athlete.
From LeBron James to Serena Williams and Christiano Ronaldo to Michael Jordan, Nike has been partnering with the world's most admired athletes for decades. Their brand has evolved to be a global leader in successful marketing and public relations through their progressive and inclusive advertising. No better to illustrate this is their 2019 Emmy-winning ad, "Dream Crazy," featuring former NFL quarterback-turned activist Colin Kaepernick.
That being said, Nike has not been ready for what is their biggest crisis. Nor should they be.
Behind the scenes of one of the largest sports conglomerates lies a small faction of athletes fighting to tell their stories of what being sponsored by Nike is really like. One of these athletes, 42-year-old long-distance runner Kara Goucher, recently sat down with the HBO documentary-style series Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel to discuss her claims in the 2019 New York Times article, “Nike Told Me to Dream Crazy, Until I Wanted a Baby” that Nike refused to pay her while she was pregnant with her first child. She recounts that her coach, former World Cross Country Champion Alberto Salazar, told her that Nike would only pay her after returning to racing and winning the Boston Marathon. Concurrently, Nike outwardly supported Goucher's pregnancy by using her as an example to show their consumers that Nike supports mothers.
Similarly, Mary Cain, a former teammate of Kara Gocher, sat down with Real Sports to address the treatment she endured under the "just do it" brand. At 18 years old, Cain began running under the Nike Oregon Project and Alberto Salazar. During her time there, she was belittled by Salazar for her weight which eventually developed into an eating disorder and suicidal thoughts. Following one of her last races, Cain was found under the bleachers by the team psychologist as she was trying to harm herself. The psychologist told her to "knock it off" without providing any aid or resources to talk about her mental health. Following this event and Cain's departure from the Oregon Project team, reports have confirmed that this sports psychologist, Darren Treasure, has never been a licensed psychologist but rather a sports performance coach. Treasure was still under the Nike payroll as of January 2021.
As a brand that promotes the positive and extremely hard-working mindset attached to professional athletes, the truth is that Nike's public relations team has been suppressing information on their athletes' treatment, without hesitating to defend coaches like Salazar. Not only is Nike fully defending Salazar, but they are also financially backing Salazar's appeal to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency after being suspended from coaching due to illegally facilitating testosterone gel to runners without their full knowledge. The Anti-Doping Agency also determined that former Nike CEO Mark Parker traded emails with Salazar about financing research on this testosterone gel.
Nike's handling of the Oregon Project team and the doping allegations has violated the fundamental values that the business preaches to its consumers. Though the team has been dissolved, Nike continues to support the staff that carried out years of abuse on many of their athletes.
The official response to Cain’s allegations has been to launch an internal investigation while attempting to paint Cain in a negative light for trying to contact Salazar after her departure from the Oregon Project. For Kara Goucher, Nike's pledge to protect pregnant women's pay as of 2019 has come too late; her body and passion for running are broken due to the swoosh symbol.
As for Nike's PR team, they should be aware that their strategies of lying and misleading their publics should only end horribly for their brand and their careers. These are not mistakes or errors gone unnoticed, but deliberate acts against the athletes they support through actions that waiver on tenuous grounds for legality.
It is time for PR practitioners worldwide to hold the Nike public relations team accountable for their unnoticed actions.
By Shay Pritulsky
Shay is a senior PR student from Phoenix, Arizona. She has experience in social media marketing and will be interning for a PR and Advertising firm in Scottsdale, AZ, over the summer. She is also the current Director of Internal Affairs for the SDSU Student Chapter of PRSSA. Post-graduation she plans on finding a career in sports marketing and management.