Nike executives have decided it’s okay to reopen a renovated building named after disgraced track coach Alberto Salazar and put images of him all over the inside of the building’s walls.
This despite the fact that longtime coach was banned by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency for encouraging his athletes to use performance-enhancing drugs.
And despite the fact that multiple former Nike Oregon Project runners – including Mary Cain and Amy Yoder Begley – have accused Salazar of abusive coaching techniques, including body-shaming them.
That decision triggered a protest of the company’s treatment of women from at least 400 Nike employees last week. The employees marched around Lake Nike, carrying signs and occasionally chanting for better treatment of women. One sign read: “Just Do Better.”
The Nike Global Communications department warned the protesters that they were not permitted to speak with the news media regarding any Nike-related matter. If that company policy was breached, it could result in being fired. Two employees told a reporter that Nike actively attempts to stifle dissent.
Nike’s decision regarding the naming of the Salazar building, and the resultant protest, comes a few weeks after former professional runner Lauren Fleshman wrote a powerful piece in the New York Times about the need to reform the coaching system in the United States for women. As Fleshman points out, the system is built by and for men.
“We currently don’t have a sports system built for girls. If we did, it would look very different – and it would benefit everyone,” wrote Fleshman.
According to Fleshman, the abuse that athletes like Cain were subjected to at Nike regarding body shape and size have been justified and allowed to continue for decades.
“It is still a very common practise for coaches to directly create an eating-disorder culture in the name of performance by focusing on weight and appearance,” wrote Fleshman.
Girls develop differently than boys. Males have a more linear performance curve. But the natural improvement curve of girls and young women often includes a performance dip, or plateau, as the body adjusts to the changes of adolescence. After the dip, women are often rewarded with steadier improvement through their mid-20s and 30s.
Too many track and distance running coaches don’t know that or simply don’t care.
“Despite decades spent submerging athletes in environments of negative body image and eating-disorder culture and contributing to a mental health crisis, very few coaches and administrators have been held to account. … If coaches are found to create or contribute to a culture of negative body image or eating disorders, they are committing abuse, and they should be fired,” wrote Fleshman.
And they certainly shouldn’t be glorified by having their names placed on buildings on Nike’s campus.
Unfortunately, the emotional abuse that Fleshman, Cain and others suffered at the hands of Salazar is not unique in sports.
Author James Michener, who wrote Sports in America, said coaches in the United States – of both women and men – get away with coaching and discipline methods that simply aren’t tolerated in any other activity.
“Coaches should be teachers and act like teachers. In a math class, we would never tolerate a teacher swearing, yelling at kids, or shaming a kid because they got a math equation wrong. Why do we allow that in sports?” says Joe Ehrmann, former NFL player, an ordained minister and co-founder of the InsideOut Initiative to transform the “win-at-all-costs” sports culture.
“Sports when it’s done right, is so beautiful,” says Jim Thompson, founder of Positive Coaching Alliance. “And when it’s not, it’s so ugly.”
And Nike’s decision to glorify a disgraced cheater and abusive coach by placing his name on one of their buildings – and posting his image on walls throughout the building – has done nothing to remove any of the ugliness.