Mary Cain
Mary Cain reacts after finishing in second place in the senior women's 1500-meter run at the U.S. Championships athletics meet, in Des Moines, Iowa in 2013. (Charlie Neibergall/AP/Shutterstock)

Runner Mary Cain Sues Nike and Former Coach for $20 Million, Alleging Sexist Treatment and Emotional Abuse

The world of women’s sports has been rocked by yet another controversy involving a teenage girl and a coach who behaved in inappropriate ways.

CNN’s Andy Rose has reported that Mary Cain, “a former rising track star, is suing Nike and her ex-coach for $20 million, saying she suffered emotional abuse at an elite training program.”

According to Rose, “Cain filed the lawsuit in Oregon on Monday, Oct. 11., against the athletic apparel company and Alberto Salazar, who ran the Nike Oregon Project until he was suspended for doping offenses and the program was shut down.”

The origins of Cain’s story date back nearly a decade. In 2012, the then-16-year-old began training at Nike headquarters in a program designed to help young, talented distance runners excel in international competition. Cain performed well in the program and was offered a Nike endorsement contract and a spot as a professional runner for the Nike Oregon Project.

Cain’s lawsuit alleges it was at this point that Salazar began subjecting her to sexist behavior and emotional abuse. Cain’s complaint states that Salazar “acted with knowledge that severe emotional distress was certain or substantially certain to result from his conduct.” It also alleges that he repeatedly told the teen that “she was too fat and that her breasts and bottom were too big.”

In court documents, Cain’s lawyers alleged that “Salazar and other Nike employees often made sexist and objectifying comments about female athletes, focusing on their appearance and weight, while they did not make similar comments to or regarding male athletes.”

The list of transgressions the teenager endured doesn’t end there either. Cain also alleges that “she was put on a diet that left her so hungry, she secretly stole food from her teammates which she ate in the bathroom.”

“The complaint [also] says Salazar publicly berated her about her weight even after she won the 3,000 meters junior world championship in 2014, a first for an American woman,” Rose reported.

Finally, the lawsuit also claims that Salazar knowingly allowed Cain to develop an eating disorder, ridiculed her for having panic attacks, and “did nothing” after she once deliberately cut herself.

“Cain’s complaints about the Nike Oregon Project first became public in 2019 when she shared her story in a seven-minute video op-ed with The New York Times,” Rose said.

At that time, Nike began an internal investigation into the matter and issued a statement to CNN saying, “These are deeply troubling allegations which have not been raised by Mary or her parents before.”

Shortly after the op-ed was published and Salazar was accused of doping violations by the US Anti-Doping Agency, the Nike Oregon Project shut down. Although he appealed the ban, Salazar was ultimately found guilty in a case that ended earlier this year.

In a new statement issued to CNN this week, Nike said, “We don’t comment on ongoing litigation. Nike is committed to positively affecting the future of sport for women and girls, and we are doing more in this space than ever before.”

Related: For more recent diversity and inclusion news, click here. 

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