The mystery of Nike founder Phil Knight’s huge political donation ahead of the midterms

Mega-donor and Nike founder Phil Knight, circa 2012.
Mega-donor and Nike founder Phil Knight, circa 2012.
Image: AP Photo/Jessica Hill
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In early September, Nike released a moving ad featuring Colin Kaepernick, the former NFL quarterback whom Donald Trump once indirectly called a “son of a bitch” for his political activism in support of black Americans.

Kaepernick was the symbolic head of the movement to “take a knee” during the US national anthem at televised games, a protest meant to bring attention to police killings of unarmed black men. When, as a free agent in 2017, Kaepernick was not signed on to a team, many believed his activism had ended his career. “Believe in something,” Nike’s ad tells viewers, as Kaepernick appears on screen near the end of the spot, “even if it costs you everything.”

As Quartz has reported, Nike’s ad raised questions about the sincerity of the company’s ostensibly progressive values. Though Kaepernick had become a symbol of resistance to Trump’s toxic politics, the company also donated to the Republican party. Now, in the lead-up to the midterm elections, the mystery around Nike’s political leanings has deepened. Nike founder Phil Knight, who remains chair emeritus of the company, has donated a total of $2.5 million to Knute Buehler, Republican gubernatorial candidate in Oregon. That amount far exceeds any other individual donation to political candidates in the state.

Knight, who is thought to be worth about $30 billion and is famously private, hasn’t explained what’s behind this exceedingly generous gift to the Republican candidate. Buehler’s campaign team has also declined to comment on the donations. (Quartz has contacted both offices and will update this post with any response we receive.)

Oregon governor Kate Brown, the Democrat incumbent running opposite Buehler, has a theory, however. Through a spokesperson, her office has proposed that Knight is “clearly accustomed to buying whatever he wants” and that “a lot of Oregonians are wondering if this is an attempt to buy a governor.”

To be sure, Buehler is considered a moderate Republican; he is described as “a mild-mannered doctor” by Slate, which reports that his ads “paint him as either a compassionate problem-solver or a moderate popular with liberals.” He claims to be  pro-choice and a supporter of gay rights.

However, as Rolling Stone has noted, he does take the Republican view on some issues, including gun control and immigration. Buehler favors repealing Oregon’s sanctuary state law—and supports a plan that would pair local and state police with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in some situations, while somehow also creating an environment in which undocumented immigrants would feel safe reporting crimes to local police.

So what might Knight be looking for?

Bill Lunch, a political science professor at Oregon State University, told Rolling Stone that Knight has joined the mega-donor class with the Koch Brothers and casino mogul Sheldon Adelson. “Part of what may be going on here is that Phil Knight, himself, is shifting more to the right,” he said.

Local media reports have suggested that Knight is drawn to the Republican candidate because of his interest in revamping the state’s public pensions system, and because he’s unhappy with the state’s economic record. The Willamette Weekly discovered a rare interview Knight gave in 2017 to a political columnists’ newsletter. In it, Knight complained that the pension payouts were going to sink the state.

He also mused, “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. I conclude it is due to political leadership.”

Brown is eyeing corporate tax increases to bring the state additional revenue, while Buehler has proposed moving public servants to a 401k plan and capping payouts.

It’s a very unsexy topic, but may be the something that Knight believes in, at almost any cost.