Earlier this month, Phil Knight, co-founder and chairman emeritus of Nike, gave GOP nominee for governor Knute Buehler $1 million. That is in addition to the $500,000 he gave Buehler 's campaign last year.
Knight's contributions to Buehler, who, among other things, supports striking down Oregon's sanctuary law for undocumented immigrants, might seem incongruous with Nike's politics. Last week, Nike came out against the ballot measure that would repeal Oregon's sanctuary state law.
And Nike's new ad campaign featuring former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick is like a raspberry directed at President Donald Trump, who has sneered at players who protest racial injustice during the national anthem.
Which makes one wonder: Why the political divergence between Nike and its co-founder? And what really motivates Knight?
To get answers, it's important to understand two things about Nike. First, Knight transferred the bulk of his Nike stock to a company controlled by his son, Travis, in 2016. So in addition to having retired as chairman, he is no longer the company's largest individual shareholder—he no longer calls the shots.
Second, Nike—and Knight—grew wealthy through a keen understanding of the retail market and a disciplined, bottom-line focus. There's no reason to believe that's changed.
Market analysts have pointed out that most of Nike's customers are under 35—a demographic friendlier to Kaepernick than to Trump.
Longtime Nike watcher Matt Powell of New York-based market research firm the NPD Group tells WW the Kaepernick campaign is simply smart business. "Consumers want brands to take visible stands on social issues," Powell says.
Knight's a registered Republican, but he's flexible. He gave then-Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber $250,000 in 2014 and was the largest individual contributor to progressive Neil Goldschmidt in his 1986 run for governor.
Knight rarely talks publicly and did not respond to questions for this story. The last time he sat down to talk politics for the record was in March 2017, when he gave an interview to Jim Pasero, a Republican political consultant who writes a monthly newsletter.
Two points Knight made then could shed light on his investment in the governor's race:
• The first concerned the unfunded liability of the state's Public Employees Retirement System, now about $22 billion.
"I think, left unchecked, PERS will just, very simply, sink the whole state," Knight told Pasero.
• The second point related directly to his political giving. Knight had recently donated $380,000 to several legislative candidates. Pasero asked him whether there were then any Oregon officeholders Knight admired. His answer foreshadowed his snub of Brown.
"I ask myself, why is Oregon so worse off fiscally than Arizona or Indiana? Indiana certainly does not have more natural resources, more educated populace," Knight replied. "I conclude it is due to political leadership."
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