Mary Cain, a once-promising middle-distance runner, filed a $20 million lawsuit Monday against Alberto Salazar, her coach until 2016, and Nike, his then-employer, according to the Oregonian/OregonLive.
The suit alleges Salazar was obsessed with Cain’s weight and would publicly humiliate her. This environment, Cain claims, negatively impacted her physical and mental health. According to the lawsuit, Nike was aware but did not intervene.
Nike declined to comment, but said it “is committed to positively affecting the future of sport for women and girls and [it is] doing more in this space than ever before.”
Cain, however, is just one of many female Nike athletes and employees to criticize the company in recent years. In 2018, an informal survey circulated by female employees about male-perpetrated discrimination prompted a wave of executive departures, including then-CEO Mark Parker’s right-hand man, Nike brand president Trevor Edwards.
The following year, Allyson Felix came forward to recount her experience as a pregnant athlete attempting to negotiate a new deal with the brand. After months of public outcry—and a congressional inquiry—Nike ultimately changed its policies to guarantee it wouldn’t cut a pregnant athlete’s pay and bonuses over an 18-month period around pregnancy.
This summer, Felix offered more details on her experience at Nike, including how the company requested she participate in an ad campaign celebrating female empowerment following her contentious pay negotiations. “My stomach dropped,” she told Time. “I was like, this is just beyond disrespectful and tone-deaf.” In August—four years after Nike asked Felix to take a 70 percent pay cut—the Athleta-sponsored athlete took home a gold and a bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics.
This spring, Nike lost another high-profile female athlete to Athleta—seven-time Olympic medalist Simone Biles. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Biles said she felt Athleta supported her “not just as an athlete, but just as an individual outside of the gym and the change that I want to create, which is so refreshing.”
Even as women’s athletic footwear booms—sales were up 21 percent against 2019 in the first half of the back-to-school season—Nike is losing share, according to the NPD Group. When comparing women’s activewear sales from January through July 2021 to the same period in 2019, Matt Powell, vice president and senior industry adviser, sports at NPD, said Nike has lost 130 basis points in share.
According to NPD’s Consumer Tracking Service, Lululemon is on track to surpass Nike as the largest women’s activewear brand in the U.S.
‘I was just trying to survive’
Cain originally opened up about her time at the Nike Oregon Project in a video op-ed published by The New York Times. Released in November 2019—a month after the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency issued a four-year doping ban on Salazar and the subsequent disbanding of the Oregon Project—the damning account revealed a culture where athletes would be weighed in front of each other and pressured to drop pounds. Cain said she began having suicidal thoughts and self-harming. When she told Salazar and the team’s “sports psych” that she was cutting herself, she said they responded by telling her “they just wanted to go to bed.”
“I think for me that was my kick in the head where I was like this system is sick,” Cain said in her 2019 op-ed. “I think even for my parents… once I finally vocalized to them, I mean, they were horrified. They bought me the first plane ride home and they were like get on that flight, get the hell out of there. I wasn’t even trying to make the Olympics any more, I was just trying to survive. So, I made the painful choice and I quit the team.”
Described by The New York Times in 2012 as “perhaps the most gifted young female runner to come along since Mary Decker in the late 1970s,” Cain never saw the Olympic success of her Oregon Project teammates Galen Rupp and Mo Farah. Instead, she developed RED-S, a syndrome that can occur when female athletes push their bodies beyond what the little food they are eating can support.
Cain said she didn’t menstruate for three years. “If you’re not getting your period, you’re not going to be able to have the necessary levels of estrogen to maintain strong bone health,” she said. She would end up breaking five different bones.
According to Cain, the Nike Oregon Project’s all-male staff did not include a single certified sports psychologist or nutritionist. In 2019, Salazar offered Sports Illustrated the names of a psychologist and nutritionist who he said were available to the team. When the publication brought these names to Nike, the footwear company said it was “not aware of the specific staff that you say Alberto referenced.” Cain also reportedly did not remember working with those specialists.
Instead, Nike’s elite running team offered athletes individuals like Darren Treasure, the “sports psych” Cain referenced in her op-ed. Despite being presented to athletes and the public as the team’s so-called “sports psychologist,” Treasure was not actually a licensed psychologist. Sports Illustrated reported in 2019 that most of the former Oregon Project athletes it contacted only learned as much after leaving the team.
Less than a week after Cain went public in 2019, Sports Illustrated said it had talked with eight other former Nike Oregon Project members who validated her claims.
“You deserve an apology for not having a person who was looking out for you in the right ways during your time in Portland at the Oregon Project, and I wish I had been that person,” Cam Levins, a Canadian Olympic runner, wrote on Twitter at the time. “I knew that our coaching staff was obsessed with your weight loss, emphasizing it as if it were the single thing standing in the way of great performances. I knew because they spoke of it openly among other athletes.”
A week after Cain came forward, The New York Times published the story of another veteran of Salazar’s Nike Oregon Project, Amy Yoder Begley. She too said Salazar would ridicule her body. Kara Goucher, another Olympic athlete and former member of the team, confirmed Begley’s story, recalling how Salazar would turn to her when her teammate left the room and ridicule her behind her back. Both athletes recalled Salazar and Treasure attempting to pit the two against each other. Begley said she was even asked to sign a contract stating she would not befriend other athletes on the team.
In May 2020, years after leaving Nike, Cain signed with the Boston-based independent running apparel brand Tracksmith. She announced the launch of her own professional women’s running team, Atalanta New York, in June.
Trouble at SNKRS
Cain’s lawsuit comes as Nike tries to tamp down controversy on another front.
Even after instituting changes to its SNKRS app over the summer, distrust in the app persists. Nike hosted an internal meeting to discuss the e-commerce platform’s current state last week, according to Complex, which said it viewed slides that accompanied the meeting.
“We are at risk of losing our most sneaker-obsessed consumer,” one slide reportedly read. “High heat, hype is ‘killing the culture’ and consumers are migrating towards New Balance and smaller, independent brands,” said another.
During the meeting, SNKRS global vice president Ron Faris attributed the app’s troubles to a low perception of fairness, Complex said. “Our community is becoming disenfranchised by our low fairness numbers,” he said. “Our fairness numbers are not where they should be. They’re at, like, the mid-20s; they need to be in the 80s.”
Frustration in SNKRS—the app by which Nike releases its most exclusive footwear—is nothing new, with users frequently taking to social media to complain about missing the latest drop. However, a scandal earlier this year involving a key executive’s connection to her son’s resale business brought the issue to the attention of the company’s highest leadership.
Weeks after the story emerged, CEO John Donahoe revealed the company would be instituting several changes to restore consumer confidence, including auditing its launch process, doubling down on anti-bot technology and updating its policies to clarify what is and is not appropriate for employees and their immediate family. This summer, Nike instituted some of these reforms.
As explained in a July blog post, the new system relies on users interacting with the app in specific ways. Each release considers a unique combination of more than 50 factors, Nike said. Trying to determine what these factors are “or getting a bot to tap on buttons” will not increase users’ chances, it noted. Setting up multiple accounts may result in blocked launch access.
The revamped Exclusive Access model debuted with a collection of 50 unique Dunk sneakers designed by Off-White founder and Louis Vuitton menswear artistic director Virgil Abloh. Speaking with investors last month about Nike’s most recent quarterly earnings, Donahoe said the Off-White Dunks ended up in the hands of hundreds of thousands of Nike’s “most deserving members.” According to the CEO, 90 percent of users who received an invite to buy were members who had lost out on a prior Off-White collaboration in the past two years.
Though Donahoe talked up the revamped SNKRS process with investors, last week’s meeting reveals the company is still trying to figure out a way to repair consumer trust.
“We’re gonna shape the marketplace to reflect the community we serve,” Faris said, according to Complex. “Especially in Black and brown communities and Asian communities, so that we actually show and we actually give equity and inclusion to the communities that have been gentrified out and alienated by the resale market.”