As Nike’s chief executive, Mark Parker has seemed to quickly move past multiple controversies over the last two years.
When female employees led an internal revolt against what they saw as a toxic culture of bullying and harassment at the world’s largest sports footwear and apparel company, Nike cleaned house by pushing out a dozen top-level executives. Parker remained.
This summer, when several current and former female Nike-sponsored runners came forward to say they had forced to decide whether to risk financial penalties from Nike by becoming pregnant, the company simply changed its policy. Parker again stayed in charge.
But the crisis currently hitting Nike strikes much closer to home for Parker.
According to emails contained in a decision by the American Arbitration Association in a case between U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and the Nike-backed running coach Alberto Salazar, Parker and other top Nike officials were briefed on several occasions between 2009 and 2011 regarding medical experiments being conducted to determine the effects of performance-enhancing drugs and how much of the substances could be used by athletes without being detected.
After the decision came down, USADA announced on Monday that it had barred Salazar from track and field for four years for violating antidoping rules. As head coach of the Nike Oregon Project, a training group based at the company’s Beaverton, Ore., headquarters, Salazar has worked with some of the world’s top distance runners.
Salazar, in a statement posted on the website for the Nike Oregon Project, said he had always followed the rules of the World Anti-Doping Agency and that he planned to appeal the ban. Jeffrey Brown, an endocrinologist from Houston who has worked with Salazar, also received a four-year ban, USADA said. He denied any wrongdoing.
The USADA report shows how Parker, an avid runner who was known to obsess over small details as a shoe designer but was not known to be a micromanager as the chief executive, took a keen interest in some of the experiments involving a group of elite runners at the Nike Oregon Project.
In an email exchange in July 2009, Brown, the endocrinologist, wrote to Parker to provide an update on an experiment involving testosterone. Taking testosterone is forbidden by the World Anti-Doping Agency and many other national and international sports organizations.
In late June, according to the email, Salazar took a pre-run urine sample from each of his two adult sons, who are not professional athletes, to determine their baseline testosterone levels. He had them run on a treadmill in an environmental chamber at Nike’s labs, then rubbed two “squirts” of a testosterone called AndroGel onto their backs. Their urine samples were again collected and tested.
Brown wrote to Parker: “We have preliminary data back on our experiments with a topical male hormone called AndroGel … We found that even though there was a slight rise in T/E ratios, it was below the level of 4 which would trigger great concern … We are next going to repeat it using 3 pumps … We need to determine the minimal amount of gel that would cause a problem.”
Parker responded by writing that it “will be interesting to determine the minimal amount of topical male hormone required to create a positive test.”
On Tuesday, a Nike spokesman said that Salazar had performed the test because he was concerned that someone could rub testosterone on Nike runners and cause them to test positive.
“Mark was shocked that this could be the case, and given Mark’s passion for running, Dr. Brown and Alberto made Mark aware of their findings,” the spokesman said. “Mark Parker had no idea that the test was outside any rules, as a medical doctor was involved. Furthermore, Mark’s understanding was that Alberto was attempting to prevent doping of his athletes.”
Parker was also looped in on a series of experiments being conducted with L-carnitine, a substance that helps the body convert fat into energy. To be effective, however, the substance needs to be infused at levels that stretch beyond the limits the antidoping rules allow for infusions. According to emails turned over as part of the investigation, Salazar and Brown were running experiments on their chief scientist, Steve Magness, a competitive runner, giving him illicit doses of L-carnitine to see how his body would respond and reporting the results to Parker.
In an email to company employees on Tuesday, Parker said, “Nike did not participate in any effort to systematically dope any runners ever; the very idea makes me sick.”
He added that Nike had looked into the allegations against Salazar and determined that he had violated no rules.
This is not the first time that someone working closely with Nike — which trumpets the value of hard training, sweat, and grit in its slick advertising — has been embroiled in a doping scandal.
In 2012, Nike ended its contract with the cycling star Lance Armstrong after USADA released reports that outlined the extent of doping evidence that accrued against him when he won seven straight Tour de France titles from 1999 to 2005. A few years earlier, Nike had cut ties with the Olympic sprinter Marion Jones after she admitted using performance-enhancing drugs and lying about it to government investigators.
On Tuesday, Nike’s stock slipped 1.75 percent to $92.28. Most Wall Street analysts seemed to be shrugging off the USADA report or any potential fallout for Parker. In recent years, he has led the company to robust earnings for shareholders, and its stock is trading near all-time highs.