Up Next

Commentary

Friend or Foe: What’s behind Jay-Z’s surprising partnership with the NFL

There are a million and one questions about the new alliance. The answers are a combination of money, power and the movement.

It could be just one. Or, more probably, it’s a combination of all four. Jay-Z’s history tells us that the reasons behind the partnership between the NFL and rap’s first billionaire likely revolve around money, power and the movement. And the potential to become the NFL’s first black owner.

For the past decade, the NFL has been at the epicenter of the definitive culture war in sports, from concussions and CTE research to domestic violence, as well as issues of social justice dramatized by exiled quarterback Colin Kaepernick. For the NFL, the cost-benefit analysis of this arrangement is clear. The league brings in one of the most famous celebrities of the past half-century who has donated time, money and attention to some of the very topics on which the NFL is accused of being tone-deaf. The league needs to recover its cultural cachet, and a big part of that means reaching out to black fans, at least some of whom swore off the game after Kaepernick’s exile.

Wednesday’s news conference at Roc Nation’s New York headquarters grew out of talks that began in January between Jay, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft. (Kaepernick and former San Francisco 49ers teammate Eric Reid reached a settlement with the NFL over their collusion grievances a month later for a reported $10 million.) Roc Nation’s partnership with the NFL is set to include entertainment consultation, which includes helping curate the Super Bowl’s halftime show. But, according to Jay, the kicker was the ability to bolster the league’s Inspire Change program through a variety of avenues, including “Songs of the Season” that will entail inspirational songs from a handful of artists played during television broadcasts and “Beyond the Field,” which will feature voices and perspectives of NFL players on a multitude of topics.

Responding to questions about whether this partnership negates his previous support for Kaepernick, who still doesn’t have a job in the NFL, Jay said that it was about figuring out the next step. “I think we’ve moved past kneeling, and I think it’s time to go into actionable items.”

He continued: “No, I don’t want people to stop protesting at all. Kneeling, I know we’re stuck on it because it’s a real thing, but kneeling is a form of protest. I support protest across the board. … I’m not minimizing that part of it because that has to happen, that’s a necessary part of the process. But now that we all know what’s going on, what are we going to do? How are we going to stop it? Because the kneeling was not about a job, it was about injustice.”

Colin Kaepernick onstage at the W.E.B. Du Bois Medal Award Ceremony at Harvard University on Oct. 11, 2018, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Photo by Paul Marotta/Getty Images

It’s impossible to say it’s not about money too. Jay’s career is a case study in the pursuit of wealth. Being broke is childish, he quipped on 1997’s “I Love The Dough” alongside The Notorious B.I.G., and I’m quite grown. On “Imaginary Player,” he raps, You beer money, I’m all year money. Two billionaire conglomerates don’t come together without a return on investment. Morally, sure. Hopefully. But financially, absolutely.

The deal gives Jay the power to program annually the most watched concert in the country and one of the last remaining mass-market entertainment experiences of any kind. Roc Nation will co-produce and consult on entertainment presentations, but it boils down to one real production: the Super Bowl halftime show. In a world where the internet has all but eliminated the concept of must-see viewing, the Super Bowl draws hundreds of millions of people to a live broadcast. But it’s also a moment that, especially for black artists, has become a picket line of sorts. A considerable amount of the backlash against Jay thus far has focused on the perceived hypocrisy over his criticism of Travis Scott’s decision to perform at Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta this year.

Jay said Wednesday that Kaepernick wasn’t the rationale for his criticism of Scott. “My problem is [Travis] had the biggest year to me last year and he’s playing on a stage that had a M on it,” Jay said, referring to Maroon 5, the headline performer. “I didn’t see any reason for him to play second fiddle to anyone that year, and that was my argument.”

And while some are uneasy seeing Jay pictured laughing with Goodell, it’s not exactly the first time Jay’s been before the court of public opinion’s firing squad.

Damon Dash (left) and Jay-Z (right) during Dash’s birthday party on May 4, 2004, at La Bodega in New York.

Photo by Johnny Nunez/WireImage

From Roc-A-Fella Records’ demise and his split with its CEO, Damon Dash, to activist Harry Belafonte questioning Jay and Beyoncé’s commitment to social responsibility in 2013, Jay continuing his partnership with luxury retailer Barneys after its “shop-and-frisk” practice ignited debates about racial profiling, and criticism of streaming company Tidal — Jay’s longevity isn’t due as much to winning every round as it is to being able to take a punch.

Now, the haymakers are coming from Kaepernick’s supporters. And it seems from Kaepernick himself.

Kaepernick’s girlfriend, Nessa, and brother-in-protest Reid criticized the deal for helping the NFL clean up the mess while Kaepernick can’t get a job in the league, even as he said last week that he was still ready to return. This week, Kaepernick put up an Instagram post commemorating the third anniversary of the start of his fight against systemic oppression. He then took to Twitter on Thursday afternoon thanking Reid for his loyalty from day one as well as the fans who still see Kaepernick as the face of a movement. Life’s irony is oftentimes wickedly poetic. Their fidelity to Kaepernick and the cause he raged against the machine for call to mind one of Jay-Z’s hardest bars from 1996’s “Feelin’ It:” If every n—a in your clique is rich, your clique is rugged / Nobody will fall ’cause everyone will be each other’s crutches.

Jay-Z’s support and praise of Kaepernick is well-documented — he once wore his jersey during a Saturday Night Live performance and dubbed him an “iconic figure” who deserved to have his name mentioned along with Muhammad Ali. Now, Jay has aligned himself with the same institution that has kept the Super Bowl runner-up quarterback off the field since the 2016 season. And in pursuit of the next phase of equality, he’s seemingly alienated the one athlete who brought the conversation into the living rooms of every house in America.

But it pays to remember that discussions similar to the ones now surrounding Jay were held about Kaepernick months ago. Kaepernick, too, aligned himself with a billion-dollar corporation in Nike in a move that drew criticism from some who felt he corporatized his cause. Did Kap, too, sell his legacy for a check? Even Uncle Luke weighed in on the issue. The truth of the matter is that Jay-Z wasn’t required to obtain Kaepernick’s blessing. But for some, Kap’s lack of involvement is a near unforgivable sin because it may have the effect of making his NFL banishment a lifelong sentence.

Jay-Z (left) and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft (right) attend the launch of the Reform Alliance, a criminal justice reform organization, at Gerald W. Lynch Theater in New York City on Jan. 23.

Photo by Shareif Ziyadat/Getty Images

What does success look like in this deal? Bringing more money and quantifiable action toward social justice and educational reform is one metric. A halftime show capable of tapping into the culture and being comfortable with that messaging is too.

But it feels like there’s something else underlying the rollout. Playlists, podcasts and access to players are all opportunities Jay could’ve captured on Tidal. At Wednesday’s announcement, Jay attempted to figure out who a reporter’s question was directed toward, himself or Goodell, by quipping, “I’m not the commissioner yet.” It was a way to lighten the mood while whimsically planting a seed. Connecting the dots, this feels like it could be a path to future ownership in the NFL.

It’s a long game. Attempting to fix the league’s image might be the most uphill battle of Jay-Z’s career — especially while he’s trying to use the platform to benefit his own business interests. It’s capitalistic. It’s selfish. But it’s also a business model that he’s repeatedly used over the last quarter century.

And if it does succeed, he’d become the first black power broker in a league that has acquired a reputation for silencing black voices, not privileging them. Debates will rage on over whether it’s a savvy or snake move by Jay. But any potential buyer of an NFL team has to be someone who at least 24 of the league’s 32 team owners want as a member of one of the most exclusive (yet anything but inclusive) clubs.

How Jay handles the NFL’s inevitable next controversy, whether it be another Stephen Ross public relations debacle or President Donald Trump weaving his way back into league storylines as the 2020 election year approaches, will be interesting to watch. N—as said Hova was over, such dummies / Even if I fail I’ll land on a bunch of money, he rhymed on 2007’s “Success.”

The boast is only partially true now. Jay-Z’s bank account is secure. But his future is now intertwined with a league he blasted just last summer — and seemingly on the opposite side of the aisle from the one player who made this newfound partnership possible. It’s not a stretch to say this could be the most important and daunting blueprint of Jay-Z’s career.

Justin Tinsley is a culture and sports writer for The Undefeated. He firmly believes “Cash Money Records takin’ ova for da ’99 and da 2000” is the single-most impactful statement of his generation.