Nike’s Dark Alliance With a Man Accused of Terrorizing Women Athletes
Nike employees have staged massive protests against the naming of a building after Alberto Salazar, a track coach who allegedly subjected his female athletes to abusive behavior.
Nike became the world’s biggest sportswear brand and one of Oregon’s largest employers because of Michael Jordan. Before His Airness became the greatest basketball player who ever lived with their shoes on his feet, Nike was a running company. Their co-founder and chairman emeritus, Phil Knight, was a college runner for the University of Oregon. Bill Bowerman, Nike’s other founder, and the design wizard behind their first in-house shoes, was a legendary track and field coach in Eugene. No matter what other pies Nike find their fingers in—golf, tennis, basketball, baseball, fashion, whatever—running is still the central pillar of the company.
In 2001, they hired Alberto Salazar, a three-time New York Marathon winner, to head up a program known as the the Nike Oregon Project to shape elite distance-running talent. At first, Salazar worked with older runners trying to correct their biomechanics, but, sooner or later, he decided that he could only get so much out of finished products, and started working with younger talent that he could mold into his vision of running greatness.
For a logo, they chose a terrifying-looking skull with eagle wings. Probably a bad sign.
The Nike Oregon Project had some major successes—Mo Farah, the four-time Olympic gold medalist, trained with Salazar—and burnished his reputation as a molder of elite talent. But there was a problem: Alberto Salazar is a toxic man with an unquenchable competitive drive who is completely willing to skirt ethical lines in pursuit of victory.
Over the last few months, the depths of Salazar’s obsessive hectoring of his athletes, especially his female athletes, has become known to the public. In an excellent video essay for The New York Times, Mary Cain, once a generational talent, describes how Salazar was obsessed with weight and operated without a certified nutritionist or sports psychologist. Salazar, not a doctor, determined that Cain’s ideal running weight was 114 pounds, and would weigh her in front of everyone and harangue her if she didn’t hit the number. Salazar’s half-cocked, weight-obsessed program eventually, she says, caused Cain to contract RED-S Syndrome. She lost her period for three years, stopped producing estrogen, and developed brittle bones, breaking five different bones while training with the Nike Project. Cain also began cutting herself. When she told Salazar, she says he blew her off.
Salazar, for his part, has denied Cain’s claims. When asked about them, he just can’t help himself, making sure to mention that “Mary at times struggled to find and maintain her ideal performance and training weight.” Even when someone is accusing him of ruining their life by obsessing over their weight, he decides to criticize their weight once more.
Cain’s story is uniquely horrifying, of course. But Salazar was also capable of more benign terrors. He’s been accused of hassling Amy Yoder Begley, another runner for the Project, about her weight, in strange, sexually charged ways. “His opinion could change in a matter of days. If I had a bad workout on a Tuesday, he would tell me I looked flabby and send me to get weighed. Then, three days later, I would have a great workout and he would say how lean I looked and tell me my husband was a lucky guy. I mean, really? My body changed in three days?” she told the Times.
Kara Goucher, another project runner who has been critical of Salazar, told the Times that Salazar was “obsessed with (Begley’s) butt. He would always talk about how it was hanging out of her shorts.”
Salazar was allegedly obsessed with arbitrary standards of weight, and willing to employ sexual harassment to drive his athletes to achieve and maintain those arbitrary standards at the expense of their broader health, and he operated under very little oversight, from Nike or from anyone else. Oh, did I mention that he also loved doping? Diuretics, testosterone, prescription quantities of Vitamin D, thyroid drugs, whatever. In September, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency caught up with Salazar’s doping schemes and banned him from the sports for four years. In the wake of Salazar’s suspension and the stories about Salazar’s behavior, Nike shut the Oregon Project down for good in October.
If I were Nike, a massive corporation that is generally concerned with what people thought of it, I would probably regard this episode with Salazar as a black eye on our establishment, and seek to distance myself from him at the soonest opportunity.
Not so for the Swoosh. An office building on the company’s Beaverton, Oregon, campus is named for Salazar—most of their buildings are named after Nike athletes—and a recent remodel was a prime opportunity to rededicate the building to someone else, but Nike just didn’t do that. According to sources who spoke to Willamette Week, a local alt-weekly, there are still pictures of Salazar all over the interior of the building.
Many of the company’s employees, especially women, staged an all-out protest against the company’s decision to not immediately distance themselves from Salazar, lining the manufactured lake in the middle of the campus, wielding signs that said “We Believe Mary” and “What Can Nike do to Better Support Women.”
Nike is a notoriously secretive company with an intense corporate culture. During the protest, someone—not the company, if you ask Nike—circulated a flier that stated that, “No employee is permitted to speak with the news media on a Nike-related matter, on any on- or off-the record, without prior approval from Nike Global Communications.” Even in the middle of an outright revolt on campus, Willamette Week was unable to get anyone to speak to them about the protest. My personal attempts were also rebuffed.
Even in the shadow of mounting accusations and an internal rebellion, Salazar has been defended by Nike. The reasons why are obscure and strange. Buildings have been renamed after sports figures have made themselves unpalatable before—Lance Armstrong lost his after revelations about his extensive doping program, and Joe Paterno’s building was renamed in the wake of revelations about longtime assistant coach Jerry Sandusky’s habitual sexual abuse of young boys.
But Salazar, mired in a scandal that somehow has doping and abuse all in one, remains. The company might be trying to shield themselves from legal action. They have been noncommittal in their statements about Salazar, promising an investigation, but not validating the claims of his accusers. When Cain went public, Nike mentioned that she “...was seeking to rejoin the Oregon Project and Alberto’s team as recently as April of this year and had not raised these concerns as part of that process,” a plea of ignorance in the court of public opinion, at least. (Cain, for her part, says her desire to return to the program was a product of the culture of abuse she has been indoctrinated into.)
Some people might suggest that Nike is doing what sports and the industries that grow out of it often do: turning a blind eye to malfeasance and abuse, especially the abuse of women, in the light of success and winning. But the fact of the matter is that Salazar’s approach—screaming, weight-testing, abuse—is quickly becoming passé in the coaching community.
Ben Dudley, the executive director of the Portland chapter of the Positive Coaching Alliance, an advocacy group for emotionally healthy coaching cultures, spoke to me about trying to root out entrenched ideas about fitness and conditioning in coaching. “There’s a culture that gets built in that believes these myths about if you’re a certain size, you’ll be better. I’m five-foot-nine and always thought I was gonna play in the NBA, which is just unrealistic. But if you’re a coach, your job is to take the athlete and support them, how they are, to help them reach their goals. And if part of their goals are to get in their best possible peak performance, peak shape, it doesn’t mean that they look and act just like another person. It’s what’s the best possible physical condition that they can be in, to compete at their highest level. But when you compare everybody to one particular body shape, or particular height or weight or whatever, then I think you’re missing an opportunity to help them reach their full potential.”
Dudley went on to talk about maintaining balance, and developing a healthy mindset in athletes. “If I’m working with an athlete that is really wanting to focus on their—not their body image, but on their health and being the best athlete they can be, then we would sit down and I’d ask them, What are your goals? What are you trying to do as an athlete? And part of that would include setting growth goals. Growth goals are things that you can measure, that you have control over, and that you do, at minimum, once a week. But there are certain things that we have no control over. We can control what we choose to eat or not eat, we can control drink or not drink. If an athlete comes to me and they want to reach a certain level, then that’s great, we can set growth goals to achieve that thing in a positive, supportive way, not in a way that shames them for making choices that they’re making.”
Olivia Katbi-Smith, a Portland track and cross country coach who has been in organized running since she was in the second grade, talked about her experience as an athlete. “I was a runner, I was a dancer, there was always pressure to be thin, and the thought was that if you weren’t thin you wouldn’t perform well. Just through my lived experience, I know that’s not true,” she attests. “If you’re not feeling your body, you’re not gonna perform well. And I think that the tides are turning because of athletes like Mary Cain who are brave enough to speak out against that. He ruined her life, but he also ruined her performance. I think it was way more important for her to have a supportive coach that would have helped her performance way more than losing five pounds or whatever he wanted her to do.”
“The first thing I ask my runners after I finish a race is, ‘How did that feel?’ because I think that’s the most important thing: How you felt mentally, how you felt physically, and how those two feelings are connected,” she continues. “If you’re off your game, if you have a bad race, that’s a mental thing; if you haven’t been doing the workouts or coming to practice, that’s a physical thing. But those two things are often connected, and I think that being in touch with your athletes emotionally is just as important as physical conditioning.”
Katbi-Smith was quick to point out the gender dynamics of the toxic environment that Salazar allegedly created. “As a coach you’re in a position of power, and as a man you’re in a position of power. To have this male coach come in and berate and abuse his female athletes who are looking to him, that’s disgusting.” It didn’t surprise Katbi-Smith when she heard the stories about Salazar from Cain, “not because I know him, or his character, but because I know men and I know how men act. It’s just another story in a long line of stories about abusive men and this kind of behavior towards women.”
Nike, even outside of their bizarre dalliance with Alberto Salazar, have had some entirely-too-recent problems with sexism in their corporate culture. Their short maternity leave policies for athletes had Goucher back training almost immediately after giving birth so she could make money off her Nike contract again.
“These athletes are workers,” says Katbi-Smith, who in addition to her coaching duties also serves as the co-chair of Portland’s Democratic Socialists of America chapter. “And they need to be banding together to assert their rights, collectively, and I hope all this publicity will empower them to do so, and I think we saw that today when the employees at the Beaverton campus walked off and I hope they’ll be demonstrating more of that. And not just the athletes and the Beaverton employees, but also the workers who are producing the actual product all over the world and of course are being exploited and working in horrific conditions. I think it’s long past time that workers and athletes stand together and rise up at Nike.”