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The controversy surrounding Jay-Z’s partnership with the NFL, explained

Hip-hop’s first billionaire is helping with the NFL’s social justice efforts. But the partnership’s first few weeks have been riddled with controversies.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell with his hand out to shake the hand of rapper Jay-Z.
Rap mogul Jay-Z and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell greet one another during the the NFL/Roc Nation partnership announcement in New York on August 14, 2019.
Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Roc Nation

It was supposed to be good news, the joining of a beloved but beleaguered sports corporation and a heralded rapper in the name of entertainment and social justice.

Instead, it added fuel to an ongoing controversy.

On August 13, the NFL announced that it was entering a partnership with Roc Nation, the entertainment company founded and led by rapper and mogul Jay-Z. The deal, which has reportedly been in the works for several months, means that Roc Nation will now help “advise on selecting artists for major NFL performances like the Super Bowl.”

While the deal effectively gives Jay-Z a major role in developing one of the most-watched concerts in the country, it also includes a social justice partnership between the rapper and the NFL. Roc Nation, the NFL adds, will play an important role in the NFL’s recently launched “Inspire Change” initiative, a collaboration between the NFL and the Players Coalition, a group of NFL players seeking to advance social and racial justice. The initiative focuses on three causes in particular: “education and economic advancement; police and community relations; and criminal justice reform.”

Both parties say the deal is an important step forward in indicating the NFL’s strong commitment to helping marginalized communities. “With its global reach, the National Football League has the platform and opportunity to inspire change across the country,” Jay-Z said in an August 13 statement. “This partnership is an opportunity to strengthen the fabric of communities across America.”

August 30 brought the first glimpses of what the partnership will look like, with Roc Nation announcing that three musical artists — rappers Meek Mill and Rapsody, and singer Meghan Trainor — had been named the first “Inspire Change” advocates. The artists will perform in a free September 5 pregame concert at Chicago’s Grant Park. The announcement also included details about an Inspire Change apparel line and details on “Songs of the Season,” a season-long effort where artists will create songs for NFL programming. The proceeds from the songs will be used to fund the Inspire Change initiative.

The announcement didn’t go over well.

In an alternate universe where the NFL had long been seen as dedicated to social justice causes, this partnership might have attracted some praise, or at least open support. But since the initial announcement and press conference with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and Jay-Z, it has faced criticism for giving the league a way around the years-long controversy it has been embroiled in following its treatment of Colin Kaepernick. The former San Francisco 49ers quarterback has not played in the NFL since becoming a free agent in 2017; the year before, he sparked a league-wide protest by kneeling during the national anthem to call attention to racial injustice and police brutality.

Kaepernick has argued that he was effectively blackballed and exiled from the league for his protest and filed a formal grievance against the league in October 2017, saying that NFL owners had colluded to keep him off the field. That grievance was settled this past February for an undisclosed sum (though Kaepernick and Carolina Panthers safety Eric Reid, a former teammate and partner in the grievance, reportedly settled for less than $10 million).

The NFL has faced criticism for owners’ refusal to hire Kaepernick as well as its attempt to end the player-kneeling protest that continued without him. In May 2018, the league announced it would implement a policy barring players from kneeling on the field during the anthem, requiring them to either stand on the field or remain in the locker room, or potentially face a fine. (It later walked that policy back after facing fierce criticism.)

And the fact that several NFL owners are prominent donors and supporters of President Donald Trump — who has repeatedly attacked Kaepernick and other kneeling NFL players, framing their protest against injustice as unpatriotic — has led to arguments that the league cares more about pleasing the president and his supporters than the predominantly black group of players who sought to highlight injustice.

All of these issues predate the new NFL/Roc Nation partnership (which was perhaps not coincidentally discussed in detail at a press conference held on the third anniversary of Kaepernick’s first protest). But these issues have still led to backlash against and criticism of the new deal, with critics focusing most of their ire on Jay-Z.

They argue that the rapper, who has long funded impactful social justice causes and has used his platform to praise Kaepernick’s protest, is disregarding the fact that the NFL has still not signed Kaepernick to a team. And in Jay-Z becoming the new face of the NFL’s social change initiative, critics claim he is also disingenuously capitalizing on Kaepernick’s protest, calling attention to recently unearthed January comments the rapper made at a press event to argue that he is using the NFL’s desire to move past the former quarterback to make more money for himself.

Supporters, meanwhile, claim Jay-Z is playing the long game, pointing to the rapper’s prior work and still-unconfirmed reports that he is seeking an ownership stake of an NFL team as evidence that the deal will somehow lead to something bigger.

As different observers disagree over what Jay-Z’s intent might be, it is clear that the partnership has drawn considerable attention and sparked a debate that shows no signs of ending. And with the backlash to the first announcement of the partnership’s efforts, one thing the Roc Nation/NFL deal isn’t generating is the universally positive press all parties involved were probably hoping for.

Jay-Z has supported numerous social justice causes. That’s part of why his NFL deal is being scrutinized.

To understand why Jay-Z in particular is getting so much criticism for the deal, it’s probably helpful to understand the image he has built in the past decade, particularly when it comes to social justice issues.

As he has ascended to his current status as hip-hop’s first billionaire, Jay-Z has also promoted a number of social justice causes and directly funded projects aimed at calling attention to racial injustice, ranging from offering financial support to the families of victims of police violence to donating to charities.

In recent years, he has been particularly involved in using film and television to highlight specific stories of injustice. In 2017, he executive produced a documentary miniseries about Kalief Browder, a young black man who died by suicide more than a year after his release from New York’s Rikers Island jail, where he had been detained without a trial for three years. In 2018, he executive produced another documentary series, this one about Trayvon Martin, the black teenager killed by a Florida neighborhood watchman in 2012.

In August, Amazon released Free Meek, a five-part docuseries co-produced by Roc Nation that focuses on the decade-long legal fight for rapper (and Roc Nation artist) Meek Mill to be freed from America’s notoriously punitive probation system. Meek and Jay have also partnered as founding members of the REFORM Alliance, a group that seeks to limit the number of people serving unfair probation and parole sentences.

Jay-Z has also spoken publicly about other causes he supports, one of which has been Kaepernick’s protest. During a 2017 appearance on Saturday Night Live, he wore a custom Colin Kaepernick jersey. That same year, he dedicated a New York performance of his song “The Story of O.J.” to Kaepernick. During a January 2018 CNN interview, he called Kaepernick an “iconic figure,” adding that the player’s focus on civil rights issues made him comparable to civil rights icon and famed boxer Muhammad Ali.

All of this has made it clear that Jay-Z sides with Kaepernick’s protest and the issues it sought to highlight. And that has left questions about why he is now partnering with the NFL, a sports league that has worked very hard to make that protest disappear.

The NFL wants to present itself as a fighter for social change — while ignoring the catalyst for its image revamp

For some critics, the deal is easily summed up as Jay-Z selling out Kaepernick’s protest, effectively allowing him to benefit from the former player’s actions even as Kaepernick continues to go without a job. “Jay-Z doesn’t need the NFL’s help 2 address social injustices. It was a money move 4 him & his music business,” Reid, Kaepernick’s former 49ers teammate, tweeted in August. “The NFL gets 2 hide behind his black face 2 try to cover up blackballing Colin.”

Nessa Diab, a radio and TV host and Kaepernick’s longtime girlfriend, added that she was angered that Jay-Z was seeking to position his deal as the continuation of Kaepernick’s protest despite not involving the former quarterback in the partnership. “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,” she said on Hot 97 radio last month.

Other observers argue that while the deal does not negate the impact of Jay-Z’s other social justice efforts, it is a stark reminder that the rapper, as he said in the 2000s, is a “not a businessman / I’m a business, man.

“To become hip-hop’s first billionaire, Jay-Z didn’t always have the luxury of avoiding relationships and partnerships with people he disagreed with or disliked,” journalist Jemele Hill recently wrote in the Atlantic. “But in this case, Jay-Z isn’t getting enough out of the deal to justify the sacrifice of some of his credibility.”

Criticism of the deal has also been amplified by some of Jay-Z’s comments during the August 14 press conference where reporters repeatedly brought up Kaepernick’s protest and his continued unemployment. The New York Times reports that one journalist said the new partnership seemed to be similar to “putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound when it seems like Colin is getting blackballed by the N.F.L.”

Jay-Z pushed back against those claims, arguing that Kaepernick’s protest was powerful but that “we’ve moved past kneeling,” adding that “it’s time to go into actionable items.”

“I’m not interested in how things look on the outside,” he said later in the meeting, at one point saying that he had spoken to Kaepernick beforehand. “If protesting on the field is the most effective way, then protest on the field. But, if you have a vehicle that you can inspire change and you can speak to the masses and educate at the same time.”

“The kneeling was not about a job, it was about injustice,” he added.

But as the details of the deal come out, more questions have emerged. It has been reported that NFL owner Robert Kraft, who like many other NFL owners has donated to President Donald Trump, played a key role in the NFL/Roc Nation deal. And the announcement of the new partnership came less than a week after heated backlash to news of a Trump fundraiser hosted by Miami Dolphins owner and Equinox investor Stephen Ross.

It all suggests that the League has a lot of PR reasons to want the partnership and that in working with them, Jay-Z will become a way for the NFL to push back on future criticism. “This alliance plays right into the NFL’s hands, because the league seems determined to banish any memory of Kaepernick with its recent social-justice efforts,” Hill wrote, “even though it’s likely that Jay-Z and the NFL wouldn’t even be entering into this arrangement if Kaepernick hadn’t taken a knee in 2016.”

The new NFL partnership has also faced criticism for the groups it is supporting

Unfortunately for Roc Nation and the NFL, the partnership has also found itself facing criticism after the recent announcement of the first groups to receive funding from the Inspire Change initiative.

On September 4, Roc Nation and the NFL announced that it would make a $400,000 donation that would be evenly split by two Chicago organizations: BBF (Better Boys Foundation) Family Services, which provides services to youth and families in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood, and Crushers Club, which runs boxing, music, and leadership programs to support young people in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, one of the city’s most impoverished areas.

As Sports Illustrated noted at the time, the donations were intended to be an example of how the Inspire Change initiative will operate in the coming year, with Roc Nation and the NFL partnering on donations and activities in cities hosting NFL games during the 2019-2020 season.

At first, things seemed to be going well. On the same day as the announcement, Rapsody, one of the artists named an Inspire Change advocate, visited BBF Family Services with rapper and Chicago native Vic Mensa to mentor 70 teenagers about their lives and offer career advice.

But as the NFL and Roc Nation promoted this activity, others were digging into the social media activity of Crushers Club, the other nonprofit receiving a $200,000 donation. A Twitter user named Resist Programming quickly unearthed numerous controversial tweets from the account, including two 2016 posts that showed photos of the group’s founder, a white woman named Sally Hazelgrove, cutting the locs of two different boys involved in the organization.

In one of the posts, which have since been deleted, Hazelgrove tweeted that “Another Crusher let me cut his dreads off! It’s symbolic of change and their desire for a better life!”

The tweets quickly prompted criticism of Hazelgrove, with some observers pointing to the history of black men and women facing discrimination and being punished for wearing their hair in its natural state, or wearing related styles like braids or locs. Online, the photos of Hazelgrove were compared to viral images of a New Jersey high school wrestler having his locs cut off during a match in 2018.

The photos fueled accusations from acclaimed director Ava DuVernay and others that Hazelgrove’s group was promoting damaging stereotypes of how black people must conform to white standards when it comes to their appearance. Crushers Club countered by sharing a video showing one of the boys photographed having his hair cut, a young man named Kobe, defending Hazelgrove and explaining that he asked her to remove his locs.

“That was something I wanted to do,” he said in the video. “Because I was tired of it. Tired of gang banging, tired of messing up. Now I’m a changed young man, trying to see bigger and better dreams.” The New York Times reported that the video was later retweeted by Roc Nation’s Twitter account.

But photos of boys having their locs cut aren’t the only reason why Hazelgrove’s Crushers Club has been criticized. Other messages found on the Crushers Club Twitter account included a 2016 tweet saying “all lives matter,” shortly after several police officers were shot in Dallas. The phrase has been used to dismiss Black Lives Matter supporters’ calls for police accountability and racial justice.

And as journalist Joel D. Anderson noted on Twitter, the Crushers Club account also liked tweets from several right-wing and alt-right figures, including Donald Trump Jr., Candace Owens, and Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk. In 2018, the Crushers Club account, which Hazelgrove said she “predominantly” runs, also tweeted that “we need Trump to help us” and supported using a curfew to help curb gun violence in Chicago.

On Friday, Hazelgrove argued that those tweets have been misinterpreted, telling USA Today and other outlets that she wasn’t aware of the backgrounds of the people whose tweets she liked, but that she retweeted them in the hopes of getting the president’s attention. Hazelgrove also said she used the phrase “all lives matter” “to be inclusive of everyone” and that she didn’t mean to cause offense.

”I need to be more aware of my words,” she told NBC News. “Especially now with a partnership with Inspire Change and the light that has been shone on me.”

But Hazelgrove’s comments haven’t tempered criticism of her or of Roc Nation, which reportedly “hand-selected and vetted” the groups that received donations, according to Sports Illustrated. Jay-Z and Roc Nation have not publicly commented on the matter.

The controversy is a reminder that Kaepernick remains a powerful symbol

If anything, the fact that a weeks-old partnership has raised these questions — and led to intense criticism from both those who see Jay-Z as compromising the power of Kaepernick’s protest and opposing groups who see the NFL as capitulating to social justice issues — serves as a reminder of just how relevant Kaepernick’s protest remains in American culture.

More than two years after his exile from the NFL, Kaepernick remains a powerful (and profitable) symbol, one who sparked a tremendous shift that continues to affect the NFL’s public image in addition to igniting an ongoing national dialogue about race, sports, and protest.

For the NFL, Kaepernick’s power has presented a problem. While much of the media attention on public opinions of Kaepernick’s protest has focused on conservative-leaning Americans and supporters of President Trump, the league’s actions have also affected its standing with black viewers, some of whom have stopped watching NFL games as the quarterback remains unemployed. As the Undefeated’s Justin Tinsley explains, “the league needs to recover its cultural cachet, and a big part of that means reaching out to black fans.”

Black musicians — some of whom are affiliated with Jay-Z — have also declined to appear on the Super Bowl stage in recent years. Rihanna and Cardi B, for example, reportedly said no to doing this year’s halftime show out of solidarity with Kaepernick. It’s possible Jay-Z’s presence could be enough to convince some of these artists to return to an NFL stage.

With rehiring Kaepernick seemingly off the table (though he has repeatedly noted that he is ready and willing to play), the league has few options. Its previous efforts to make the matter go away, like its attempted policy to end the anthem protests, have only led to more controversy and criticism of its actions. And even as the organization tries to stake out a place as a nonpolitical entity, its treatment of the protest, as well as its owners’ support of a president opposed to that protest and hostile to other racial justice issues, suggests that the NFL won’t be able to easily extract itself from the problem like it so clearly wants to.

The latest deal also raises a different, non-Kaepernick question, one about how committed the league actually is to fighting for social justice when it couldn’t even support displays of protest. The announcement of apparel and music concerts shows some of the support Jay-Z will add to the Inspire Change initiative, but it still took a while for the campaign to explain how it plans to directly work with marginalized communities. And even when it did make that announcement, it has faced criticism for some of the groups it is choosing to support.

There are a lot more questions than answers. But one thing is clear: The NFL, even as it seeks to move past questions about Kaepernick, is still closely tied to the protest he began three years ago. With his new deal, Jay-Z will now have to shoulder some of that weight.