Back in 2016, Colin Kaepernick stirred a national movement by kneeling instead of standing for the national anthem at NFL games to spotlight racial inequality, police brutality among other social injustices towards black and brown people in this country. For his efforts, he became a target of coordinated efforts by the NFL franchises to silence him and received sharp criticism from a faction of fans. However, many celebrities across the different entertainment sectors showed support for Kaepernick. One notable of such acts of solidarity was in 2017 when Jay-Z performed on Saturday Night Live, wearing a custom Kaepernick number 7 jersey.
Fast forward to August 2019, Jay-Z is sitting in the Blueprint conference room at the Roc Nation headquarters in New York City and next to him is the commissioner of the National Football League, Roger Goodell. The occasion is a press conference to announce a long term partnership between Jay-Z founded company Roc Nation and the National Football League. Right away, the news sent people into a frenzy starting with reporters in the room asking questions about how this development aligns with Colin Kaepernick’s protest. Reactions immediately show divided opinions, some people label Jay-Z a cold-blooded sellout and some call the deal a strategic move by the entertainer-turned businessman to effect change from within.
NFL partnership with Roc Nation is structured to fail, at least on one front.
As I read and listened to many arguments for and against the partnership, I could not help it but notice that nobody seems to talk about the fundamental flaw that hinders this partnership from effectively functioning as a platform for the NFL and the protesters to address the racial and social issues in question. While there is probably no company more suitable and capable than Roc Nation to enhance the league’s live game-day experience that had suffered as a result of the protests, it is inherently handicapped to lead proper social justice efforts. Being a for-profit organization with stockholders to answer to, Roc Nation’s primary obligation is to maximize their profits. As history has shown us, capitalism is the antithesis of social equality, the two just don’t mix. Therefore, social justice as in the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges among people within a society should never be entrusted to for-profit corporations because of the inevitable conflict of interest. After all, social justice should never be for sale. No corporation, government, or individual should be able to buy their way out of social injustice and neither should anybody profit from it. Unfortunately, this is exactly what this deal between Roc Nation and the National Football League feels like.
The public is right [and it’s their duty] to be skeptical of Jay-Z and Roger Goodell’s claims of altruistic motives.
When asked about how this deal ties in with Colin Kaepernick’s protest, Jay-Z, born Shawn Carter said, “We forget that Colin’s whole thing was to bring attention to social injustice. In that case, this is a success. This is the next phase.” But how can this be a continuation of Kaepernick’s protest without Kaepernick himself being part of the deal or at the very least “bless the union”? As more information surfaced, we have by now learned that Kaepernick himself does not view this deal in a positive manner, to say the least. Therefore, Jay-Z calling his partnership with the NFL a continuation of Kaepernick’s protest sounds more like an attempt to hijack people’s support for his own personal gain.
In his attempt to further sanitize this otherwise insensitive partnership, Mr. Carter goes further to say “There [are] two parts of protesting. You go outside and you protest, and then the company or the individual says, ‘I hear you. What do we do next?’ ” As prudent as that sounds, it would have made much more sense had those words were said to Kaepernick. But that was not the case, the man still has not stepped on the field since the NFL blackballed him. Better yet, the NFL has neither publicly acknowledged nor apologized for its role in blackballing Kaepernick. That should have been the first “actionable item” at that negotiation table for Jay-Z had his motives were to further Colin’s call for social justice.
If Jay-Z and Roger Goodell are going to try to sell us this deal as a social justice effort, then complete transparency is imperative if they want the public to buy into it. Unfortunately, the myriad of dodgy answers they presented during the press conference certainly does not help their case but rather further the public’s skepticism and mistrust of their claim. While I understand that details of a private deal between private companies are privy among the parties, however, that warranted shroud of secrecy goes out of the window the moment the private companies seek public support by claiming to serve public interest. In the words of Nessa Diab, a radio and TV host, and Kaepernick’s longtime girlfriend, “I don’t mind you doing a business deal — but I do mind you wrapping it in social justice when you’re working with an organization that denies someone an opportunity.”
We also heard from Mr. Carter himself about the pivotal role the Patriots owner Robert Kraft played in orchestrating this deal, which makes Roc Nation’s activist motivation claim become all but more confounding. Robert Kraft was one of the NFL owners accused of colluding to silence Colin Kaepernick and threatened players with fines in an effort to prevent them from using the NFL platform to spotlight police brutality and other social and racial injustices. Kraft, like many other NFL owners, is an ardent supporter of Donald Trump, who has repeatedly demonized players seeking social justice reforms, including and especially Kaepernick. So what prompted people like Robert Kraft to all of a sudden “care” for the plight of a people from which nearly 70% of their players are part of? Tens of thousands of NFL fans protested games and TV ratings went down. That created a serious economic danger for the NFL. The more recent Super Bowls have been marred by music stars boycotting performing at the half time show, a cash cow for the NFL. With that in mind, it’s clear to see that it was not until the NFL realized that their efforts to silence the protest had begun to hurt their profits and something had to be done. The NFL had developed a big perception problem, and partnering with Jay-Z just seems like a public relations move rather a genuine effort to champion social justice. As Eric Reid, Kaepernick’s former San Francisco 49ers teammate, tweeted “The NFL gets 2 hide behind his black face 2 try to cover up blackballing Colin.” With Jay-Z on board, the NFL can now try to refute any accusations of blaxploitation by pulling their black friend card.
As much as Jay-Z is a powerful voice in the Black community, neither he nor any other individual represents the collective interests of the entire community affected by the issues the NFL wishes to address. A clear indication of how polarizing this approach is the deafening uproar that followed the announcement of the partnership. I think the way the NFL is trying to solve the problem by “buying” an influential Black voice is arrogant, artificial, ingenuine and straight-up insulting. It reeks a condescending attempt to use money to gain guilt-free access to the black audience, culture, and acceptance. Although bringing in Jay-Z alone may solve some of the problems the NFL is facing, unfortunately, it may actually exacerbate the one problem they so desperately need to address – their insensitivity and indifference to the plight of Black people and perpetuation of racial inequality in this country.
So what is the right way for the NFL to engage the community on these issues?
First and foremost, the first press conference the NFL should hold or should have held is one to acknowledge their wrongdoing publicly and apologize to Colin Kaepernick. Without that, none of their efforts will ever feel genuine.
Secondly, any real effort by the NFL to tackle social and racial injustice should involve not only Colin Kaepernick but other stakeholders affected by such injustices as well. One possibility would be to restructure The [Sports] Inspire[d] Change framework to involve not only the NFL owners, Players Coalition but also other stakeholders. That may include professional sports organizations, non-profit organizations on the ground dealing with these problems, police organizations, criminal justice elements, community leaders, fan organizations, and government representatives. Such a coalition would be empowered and accountable enough to make real changes to improve social and racial justice better than any single for-profit company or individual could ever be.
Nonetheless, let me say that I still think that the partnership between Roc Nation should continue as it is great for both parties and maybe even for the culture as well. However, it should not be packaged as something that it is not – a deal driven by altruistic motives. With Roc Nation on board, the NFL fans can count on Super Bowl and all other game-day experiences to be rich in entertainment. However, we cannot and should not expect this partnership to be the platform to address the NFL’s deep-rooted embodiment of racial inequality and blaxploitation. The Wall Street Journal reported Jay-Z saying that he is in a unique position that can allow him “to bridge the gap between the people affected by these injustices and rich businessmen, especially in the highly polarized arena of sports.” Although I agree with Mr. Carter’s obvious assessment, I do not subscribe to any notion that he can do it alone especially under the pressures and obligations of a profit-driven or commercial deal. In my eyes, the biggest value we can draw from this partnership is an opportunity to make “these platforms to be more inclusive of our music” and further expose Black culture to new audiences.