Nike CEO John Donahoe interviewed by Sara Eisen at the CNBC CEO Council Summit in Santa Barbara, California.
Randy Shropshire | CNBC
As the political battle between Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Disney, Nike CEO John Donahoe says it’s important for corporations to pick their battles, but fight for the values that are important to their brands.
In a sit-down interview at the inaugural CNBC CEO Council Summit in Santa Barbara, California, Monday night, CNBC’s Sara Eisen touched on the DeSantis controversy and asked Donahoe if he was worried about Nike becoming a target.
“Aren’t you worried that if Ron DeSantis becomes president, he’ll come after you as a woke corporation?” Eisen asked Donahoe about the expected Republican presidential contender.
In response, Donahoe said companies don’t need to weigh in on every political kerfuffle but should be a strong voice when their brand values are attacked.
“I think Bob is doing a great job here,” Donahoe said of Disney CEO Bob Iger.
“If it’s core to who you are and your values, then no, you’re going to stand up for your values,” he said. “If it’s commenting on some political issue that’s in someone else’s backyard, then we might have a personal feeling, but we don’t comment on it on our brand and publicly.”
Iger was not leading Disney when, in February 2022, he publicly criticized Florida Republicans’ controversial bill limiting classroom discussion of sexual orientation, which he and other critics labeled “Don’ Say Gay.”
His tweet that the bill would “put vulnerable, LGBTQ youth at risk” put more pressure on Disney’s CEO at the time, Bob Chapek, to break his silence on the law.
After Disney came out against the bill, DeSantis and his allies targeted the Orlando-area special tax district that has allowed Walt Disney World to manage its own operations for decades. The clash lasted more than a year, and it continued even after Iger returned as CEO in November following Chapek’s ouster.
Donahoe pointed to three values that are central to the Nike brand: racial and social justice, sustainability and youth participation in sports, particularly for girls.
When it comes to racial and social justice, Donahoe said Nike built its brand by working with some of the most iconic Black and brown athletes in history, such as Michael Jordan, Serena Williams and LeBron James.
“In addition, our main consumers for the Nike brand, the Jordan Brand, the converse brand, are Black and brown urban communities – that’s where sneaker culture started,” explains Donahoe. “And so, we listen to our athletes and our consumer about what they care about and they care about racial and social justice and so we look at that as the core of who we are, the core of our identity… so it gives us a little more courage to speak up.”
The company is focused on youth participation in sports as girls are dropping out of athletics at an “alarming rate,” Donahoe said.
“It turns out that one of the biggest reasons girls drop out is that they don’t have female coaches when they hit puberty,” Donahoe said. “So, we’re trying to train 20,000 female coaches, moms and other former athletes to be coaches to promote youth. So that’s less of a controversial issue, but it’s one we care about as a value.”
On sustainability, Donahoe said as “the leader” in the industry, Nike must set an example for change because otherwise, “it won’t happen.”