Don’t Worry, Be Nike: Oregon’s Flagship Company Has Done Wrong. Why Aren’t Its Employees Resisting?

These days, Nike is a brand increasingly associated with abuse of the very athletes it claims to champion.

Some of your fellow Portlanders are living with a guilty secret.

Each morning, they drive west on Highway 26 or board a MAX Blue Line train to Beaverton. Their work is fulfilling. They are surrounded by the top minds in their profession. Their offices are sleek and gleaming: a palace for Oregon's elite.

These people look like us, although maybe a bit fitter and wearing a few more swooshes. But they are carrying what is steadily becoming a heavy burden. They work at Nike.

That used to mean bragging rights—a place in the winner's circle, at the cool kids' table. No longer. These days, Nike is a brand increasingly associated with abuse of the very athletes it claims to champion.

"If there was ever a time when a Nike employee might wonder what kind of company they're working for," says Joshua Hunt, an investigative journalist who has closely followed the company, "it's now."

For the past two years, Nike has been battered by allegations of bullying and cheating.

Last year, women in the company led an internal uprising over repeated harassment by their male supervisors—describing an office culture where men were free to behave boorishly. For much of 2019, Nike has battled allegations that it pays off high school hoops stars.

But for many, a scandal that emerged this month marks an unimaginable low.

On Nov. 7, Mary Cain posted a video on The New York Times website. Cain was a teenage running phenom, "the fastest girl in America." At 17, she left her home in New York to train with renowned track coach Alberto Salazar and the Nike Oregon Project.

In the video, she describes Salazar taking extreme measures to keep her weighing 114 pounds: demanding she take diuretics and birth control pills, weighing her in front of teammates, and publicly shaming her if she didn't hit the goal weight he had set. She says she broke five bones from malnutrition.

"I was emotionally and physically abused by a system designed by Alberto and endorsed by Nike," she says on the video. "An all-male Nike staff became convinced that in order to get better, I had to become thinner, and thinner, and thinner."

Two other women in the Nike Oregon Project, Kara Goucher and Amy Yoder Begley, allege Salazar similarly abused them nearly a decade ago.

Their accounts come one month after Salazar was banned for four years from track competitions, for doping his runners.

Mary Cain, shown here with track coach Alberto Salazar in a still from her New York Times video, says he bullied and shamed her. “It’s a cult,” she says of Nike.

Nike has seen changes at the top. Executive Trevor Edwards left last year, and CEO Mark Parker announced his retirement last month.

Nike maintains Parker's departure had nothing to do with Salazar. "This has absolutely nothing to do with the Oregon Project," says company spokesman Greg Rossiter.

In a statement, Nike says it gives employees several ways to report concerns, including a confidential portal to report potential ethics violations. The company says it supports Salazar's appeal of the doping ban, and adds he never gave performance-enhancing drugs to Oregon Project runners. But it is investigating the allegations of abuse.

"These are deeply troubling allegations which have not been raised by Mary or her parents before," says Rossiter. "We take the allegations extremely seriously and will launch an immediate investigation to hear from former Oregon Project athletes. At Nike, we seek to always put the athlete at the center of everything we do, and these allegations are completely inconsistent with our values."

But what's most striking about the fallout from these revelations isn't the corporation's crisis PR.

It's the silence of Nike's employees.

More than 12,000 people work on Nike's campus. Do their consciences prick them? Do they feel sullied by Salazar's excesses, or figure he's merely a bad apple operating far from them? Or do they just not care?

It's difficult to say. Because they won't talk about it.

Nike’s campus expansion includes a parking garage themed around New York City sports culture. (Sam Gehrke)

In the past week, WW reached out to more than a dozen Nike employees. That's just a sliver of the company's workforce, but the results were telling. Only one person—a contract employee—agreed to give us quotes, even with the promise of anonymity.

One employee declined to comment by citing a company directive to forward all press inquiries to the media relations office. Another employee worried Nike would suspect him as a leaker. Several people mentioned nondisclosure agreements and an unspoken rule of company culture: Nike handles its own business, and doesn't talk about its problems with the outside world.

It's a measure of the paranoia that surrounds Nike that even former employees were willing to dish only if they were given a pledge their names wouldn't be used.

They described feelings of disappointment and disillusionment—but not surprise. "It was just a reality check," one person says. "You idolize these big brands. You would hope they would take someone like [Salazar] out a long time ago."

Nike remains hugely profitable: $36.4 billion in revenues last year. In part, that popularity is built on a brand of rebellion. Nike sales grew after it debuted left-wing quarterback Colin Kaepernick as a pitchman—analysts hailed it as a company with a savvy social conscience.

And yet its employees haven't shown anything resembling Kaepernick's public defiance. Behind the berm that surrounds Nike headquarters, it's all quiet.

To be sure, the insurgence by women employed at Nike resulted in significant changes. But Nike employees look downright meek compared to those of other embattled companies. Plenty of workers have defied the tech giants of Silicon Valley.

When Amazon and Microsoft were duking it out for a $10 billion Pentagon contract, employees at both companies sounded off. At Facebook, the company's contempt for privacy and the traditional roles of a media publisher have generated widespread angst among employees.

One year ago, workers at Google staged a mass walkout in an effort to prevent the company from contracting with U.S. immigration agencies.

Google employees staged a walkout last year to protest a potential government contract.(courtesy of Flickr)

No such "Resist Nike" effort exists. There have been no walkouts—not even a hashtag.

In terms of national brands, Nike is Portland. There's something about the story of Phil Knight—a puckish outsider who got his start selling waffle-sole shoes out of the trunk of his car and now outfits LeBron James and a constellation of superstars—that engenders pride even in a state where it's hip to be square. It's not just that Nike is our biggest homegrown company. (Nobody waxes poetic about Precision Castparts.) It's the only thing a lot of people know about us beside rain and trees. It's our championship team.

That makes the silence of Nike employees more disturbing. Portland styles itself as independent—a town that sticks up for the little guy and gives the middle finger to powerful blowhards.

If Nike workers won't speak out against their bosses, what does that say about us?

The Seb Coe Building on Nike’s Beaverton campus. (Sam Gehrke)

The only former Nike employee who agreed to let us use his name while discussing the company is Michael Bergmann.

Bergmann spent decades in Nike's product development division, rising to global director of sustainability. He left in 2013, and is now president of Portland Track, a nonprofit that organizes running events.

Bergmann, 59, has been friends with Alberto Salazar for nearly 30 years. He believes Mary Cain's story.

"Alberto has always been a highly competitive athlete who pushed even his personal limits," Bergmann says. "He's had near-death experiences through his running. He knows how to push himself. Was that something he felt could be reflected in his coaching style?" Bergmann says it's possible.

Thinking about the Nike Oregon Project makes Bergmann gloomy.

"I'm saddened," he says. "I don't think it is one bad apple. The whole sport could use a refresh, to be honest."

Another ex-employee, who spent more than a decade at Nike, is less forgiving.

She contrasts Salazar's alleged manipulation of the athletes in his care with the legacy of Bill Bowerman, the University of Oregon track coach who co-founded Nike, and Steve Prefontaine, the record-setting runner who built the company's legend.

LeBron James may be Nike's best-known pitchman, but track and field is the company's DNA, exemplified by the legendary Ducks distance runner Prefontaine, a grinder who trained on beer and the hills of his hometown, Coos Bay.

"It bubbled up through one of the most authentic parts of Nike," she says. "It's the taproot. What would Prefontaine say? Pre would be pissed. Bowerman would be pissed."

The longtime employee places responsibility for the abuse and doping on Mark Parker—who resigned as Nike CEO in October after 13 years atop the company. Parker was just the third CEO in the company's history and delivered record financial results. Still, he quit just three weeks after Salazar's doping ban.

Documents released by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency showed Salazar and Parker in close communication about experiments the track coach was conducting to see whether topical testosterone would trigger a positive drug test.

In a companywide email sent days after the ban, Parker told Nike employees Salazar had been trying to prevent cheating—and so was Parker.

The email, obtained by WW, blamed the scandal on the media.

"Some of the recent public commentary has called into question whether I've lived up to our values in connection with the information shared with me on the Oregon Project," Parker wrote. "To have my name and Nike's name linked to this reckless mischaracterization is offensive."

The veteran employee says that doesn't wash. She says Parker dropped the ball on Salazar. She thinks the apathy of Nike employees has trickled down from the top desk.

"If it's not cool, you have the power to stop it," she says. "He didn't stop it. Just like he didn't stop other things."

The LeBron James Building will feature an inclined running track. (Sam Gehrke)

Nike's brand depends on athletes: talented spokespeople who wear swooshes into battle. The most successful—the superstars—get Nike's highest honor. A building on Nike's 270-acre campus is named after them.

Today, the Alberto Salazar Building is closed for renovations.

The office now bears no trace of his name. That might be explained by the construction inside: Next door, the John McEnroe Building is also stripped of signage for a remodel. Banners promise Nike is installing windows at every desk, a mothers room, and an all-gender restroom.

But outside the building, a bronze relief of Salazar's face is still mounted along the Nike Walk of Fame, and a black-and-white photo of him still adorns a huge lakeside banner.

At Nike, Alberto Salazar’s banner still adorns the campus, and the company says his name will remain on an office building.

Nike World Headquarters is a wonder of Oregon that most citizens have never visited. Much of it dates back to the 1990s, and still has the white-paneled aesthetics of an upscale office park. But there's evidence it's evolving rapidly.

The northeast end of campus is in the midst of an expansion estimated by The Oregonian to cost $1 billion.

The new offices—cantilevered so they loom darkly over passersby, like UFOs looking for a Washington County farmer to abduct—make Nike's campus resemble the imperial offices of Facebook and Google. Outside the Seb Coe Building, a stone path winds through a forest of firs. It passes through glass mirrored doorways to nowhere, each emblazoned with the company virtues. "Authenticity," for example.

Several employees say the campus expansion corresponded with a spiritual change at Nike—for the worse.

The employee with 20 years' experience said she saw new hires demanding reserved parking spaces (which are also named after celebrity athletes) and access to the executive cafeteria.

"Who are these people?" she wonders. "They aren't the people who built Nike. They aren't what the company is about. Phil [Knight] used to walk around and have lunch with the people every day. Now there's this Borg with their own gym and their own cafeteria."

The Seb Coe Building contains a Stumptown Coffee Roasters location, just for Nike employees and visitors. (Sam Gehrke)

That's a common lament among former Nike employees: The place used to have a unique character, but it's been made rigid and soulless by success.

"I think people lived and breathed the culture," Bergmann says. "And people in my era thrived on that, we owned those decisions or we wanted to make a difference. That's absolutely different than it used to be."

But this account of paradise lost doesn't entirely withstand scrutiny. This isn't Nike's first round of scandals, or even its worst. In the late 1990s, labor conditions at Nike's contracted factories grew so dire that the swoosh was synonymous with sweatshops.

"It's been dealing with scandals for decades," says Hunt, the journalist, who authored a book, University of Nike, critical of the company's dealings in college athletics. "But typically, it's been really, really good at getting its side of the story out there—if not first, then maybe best."

For that matter, Salazar himself is a Nike lifer: He's one of the original athletes "with close ties to Nike and Phil Knight," as the company declares. He wasn't an intruder into Beaverton's Eden.

Nike has whitewashed names off its buildings before. (The child care center was once named after Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, who failed to stop a pedophile on his staff.) This may not be the last renovation.

"Maybe they should just name the buildings after women," says the longtime Nike employee. "So far, I don't think a woman's been erased."

Nearly all the offices on Nike’s verdant 270-acre campus carry familiar names: Michael Jordan, Mia Hamm, Nolan Ryan. Mirrored doorways line the Seb Coe Building.

The only person currently working at Nike who would discuss the scandals is a contract employee, who started working there nearly a decade ago. When she arrived, Nike World Headquarters mostly reminded her of a college campus.

That's how she explains the silence of her co-workers.

"It's like you never left college," she says. "Everyone is expected to be a part of that campus and be the Nike image—as opposed to a place where you go and it feels like a place like a community workspace or a collaborative place."

She says that sense of camaraderie—the same team loyalty that Nike tries to foster at colleges across the country—can be soothing. But it's also intimidating. "That legacy vibe," she says, pointing to those banners with athletes, "it's meant to stun you a bit."

"It feels very much like a club," she adds. "You are on Nike's turf."

Nike’s campus expansion includes a parking garage themed around New York City sports culture. (Sam Gehrke)

Several former employees say Nike workers keep quiet out of fear. Others say it's loyalty. Or maybe a little of both. "They love this brand," says a former employee. "It's not a cult, but it is definitely a massive adoration for the kind of work you get to do at Nike. People want to get in and want to stay."

Bergmann, the product developer-turned-event promoter, says some employees just aren't that troubled. "They're enjoying their experience at Nike," he says. "I don't know if it really affects them in a deep way."

And the longtime employee with the harshest assessment of Nike? She thinks the company's employees don't have the same independent streak as Silicon Valley disrupters who will walk out of Google.

"The nature of the work is actually a lot simpler than the nature of the work at Google," she says. "[Engineers] run at a different clock speed. Making shoes is not that complex by comparison. 'Go with the flow' is a little bit more their nature—as opposed to 'invent and revolt.'"

Not everyone shares the assessment of Nike employees as pliable or cowed. Matt Powell is a national sports industry analyst who has observed Nike for decades. He says its workers are plenty rebellious—they just voice their dissent internally, as when female executives demanded pay equity last year.

"I think people at Nike have stood up," Powell says. "My sense is that people are being quite vocal within the company. They may not be talking outside."

Perhaps the disconnect with tech rebels stems from the nature of the offensive activities.

Nike allegedly abused elite athletes in a quest to win. It allegedly put money in the pockets of generally underprivileged basketball players who were going to generate big revenues for the colleges they attended. When Silicon Valley giants cut ethical corners, the public gets hurt; when Nike loses its way, the effects are far narrower. The sneakers don't explode when you slip them on.

Yet there is still plenty to discuss behind the berm. The company has been credibly accused of treating the women in its ranks as second-class citizens, rigging the one part of sports that's supposed to be pure—amateur athletics—and pushing the limits of teenage participants in sports until their bodies broke.

At what point will Nike employees' cushy salaries and enviable perks mean less to them than doing the right thing?

Mary Cain says it ought to be about now.

"I think what frustrates me so much is, Nike is not a person," she said in a Nov. 16 podcast. "Nike is a company. And the people at Nike, I would hope, have the soul to see the darkness that can arise within a company, and change it."

The Alberto Salazar Building on Nike’s campus. (Sam Gehrke)

Just Did It

Nike's bad headlines have snowballed

For most of its history, Nike has been criticized. In the 1990s, the company was excoriated for using sweatshop labor, and campus demonstrators across the country have fought Nike's forays into college athletics.

But the past several years have been particularly punishing. Here's how troubling rumors began, and how they grew into damning headlines.

June 2015: ProPublica and BBC News report that Nike athletes, including runner Kara Goucher, allege Nike Oregon Project coach Alberto Salazar encouraged them to use performance-enhancing drugs. The U.S Anti-Doping Agency launches an investigation.

Kara Goucher

February 2017: A confidential USADA report on the Oregon Project is leaked by a Russian hacking group. The report centers on performance-enhancing supplements given to Salazar's runners in copious doses. The documents show emails from Salazar expressing excitement about the supplements' results.

April 2018: The New York Times reports on a group of women who surveyed fellow female employees about gendered treatment at Nike and delivered the harrowing responses to CEO Mark Parker. A half-dozen prominent male employees leave the company. "It has pained me," Parker says, "to hear there are pockets of our company where behaviors inconsistent with our values have prevented some employees from feeling respected and doing their best work."

Mark Parker

August 2018: Two female ex-employees sue Nike, alleging gender discrimination, mishandling of sexual harassment complaints and men routinely being promoted over women. In a statement to The New York Times in the wake of the lawsuit, Nike said, "We are committed to competitive pay and benefits for our employees."

March 2019: Lawyer Michael Avenatti is charged with attempting to extort $25 million from Nike by threatening to reveal alleged under-the-table payments to top high school basketball recruits to attend Nike-sponsored colleges.

Michael Avenatti

August 2019: Evidence procured in the case against Avenatti suggests Nike paid top high school basketball recruits and their families hefty sums to get them to attend select schools. Those players include top NBA draft pick Zion Williamson. Duke University finds Williamson did nothing wrong.

Zion Williamson

October 2019: Salazar receives a four-year ban from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency for providing testosterone to some of his athletes, encouraging them to use performance-enhancing supplements in illegal quantities, and attempting to cover it up. The Oregonian's Jeff Manning reveals Nike funded Salazar's legal defense. Emails show CEO Mark Parker in close communication with Salazar. Parker denies any wrongdoing. Then he resigns.

Mary Cain / Alberto Salazar

November 2019: Ex-Nike Oregon Project runner Mary Cain appears in a video on The New York Times website that alleges Salazar and his staff emotionally abused her while she ran for them, driving her to self-harm and leading her body to break down. Immediately afterward, former teammates of Cain's, including Kara Goucher and Amy Yoder Begley, come forward with similar allegations of abuse at the hands of Salazar. "If I had a bad workout on a Tuesday, he would tell me I looked flabby and send me to get weighed," Yoder Begley tells the Times. Nike announces it will investigate the allegations.

Hayward Field.

Welcome to Nike Town

Track scandals arrive just as Oregon takes the world stage.

The allegation that Nike abused runners comes as Oregon is poised to host two of the world's largest track-and-field events in a renovated stadium partially funded by Phil Knight.

The 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials for track and field will be held at Eugene's Hayward Field in June. The following year, Hayward will host the World Athletics Championships, a celebration of running.

The two events offer an unprecedentedly high profile for Oregon track. They will showcase a $200 million remodel of Hayward Field, birthplace of Oregon running—and of Nike. They've been championed by UO officials and Gov. Kate Brown, who is seeking another $20 million in taxpayer dollars for the 2021 event.

"It's truly an honor for the city of Eugene, for the state of Oregon and, frankly, for the entire country to be hosting these games for the first time ever," Brown said Oct. 10 at a press conference announcing the event.

But the allegations of abuse within the Nike Oregon Project threaten to overshadow the party. An event in a stadium paid for with Knight's money only increases the scrutiny of the culture inside Nike's elite running program.

Nike is an official sponsor of Team USA, and has close ties to TrackTown USA, the committee hosting the 2020 Olympic trials, and USA Track & Field, the agency that governs the sport.

So far, none of the organizers are distancing themselves from Nike.

When asked about her agency's response to the recent Nike scandals, USA Track & Field spokeswoman Susan Hazzard said, "USATF does not compromise athlete health and safety," and added that Nike is one of its 14 corporate partners, "none of which make business decisions for the [agency]."

Hazzard adds that both upcoming events are stand-alone events "and will be run with the same professionalism and high standards that are expected at such prestigious events."

USATF declined to answer specific questions about its stance on the Nike scandals.

The University of Oregon athletics department also declined comment. So did Gov. Brown.

The Oregon Ducks have long been bankrolled by Nike and Knight. State officials' reluctance to strain that relationship is hardly surprising.

But other universities have been willing to walk away from Nike money.

In 2017, the University of California at Santa Barbara dropped Nike as its athletics sponsor, after the school said it could not verify whether Nike was complying with ethical workplace standards in its factories.

That's because in 2006, the school joined a group of institutions that demanded that their apparel sponsors comply with ethical standards in supply factories. The school alleged Nike's transparency with factory operations was too hazy for the school to determine whether or not the company was complying. Nike contended it was cooperating fully, but the school still decided to drop Nike as its sponsor.

Joshua Hunt, whose book University of Nike examines Knight's funding of Ducks athletics, says an anti-corporate shift in American political sentiments could leave Nike—and its partners—vulnerable. "If I were a politician," he says, "and I were looking for a big bad corporation to bag as a trophy, I might be taking a close look at Nike."

Ironically, Nike has also been on the other side of a debate whether to drop ties with an embattled partner.

After USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar was accused of sexually abusing young gymnasts at Michigan State University, the biggest name to raise its voice was Nike, one of its athletic sponsors.

"Nike stands in support of athletes and the bravery and courage of all survivors," a statement from Nike spokesman Greg Rossiter said on Jan. 30, 2018. "We strongly condemn the horrific abuse that occurred and have communicated our deep concerns."

Nike ultimately continued its partnership with Michigan State.

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