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Rihanna’s criticism of the NFL goes deeper than her loyalty to Kaepernick

A half-decade after the blowup over ‘Run This Town,’ she’s still at odds with the league

Don’t expect Rihanna to squash her long-standing beef with the NFL anytime soon. The megastar confirmed this week she “absolutely” turned down a chance to perform at last season’s Super Bowl out of solidarity with Colin Kaepernick.

“I couldn’t dare do that. For what? Who gains from that? Not my people. I just couldn’t be a sellout,” she told Vogue. “I couldn’t be an enabler. There’s things within that organization that I do not agree with at all, and I was not about to go and be of service to them in any way.”

Some homed in on her reference to the word “sellout” and whether it was a shot at her friend and collaborator Jay-Z after the news of his Roc Nation partnership with the NFL. A source close to the situation said Rihanna wasn’t aiming her comments at Jay-Z and wasn’t aware of his negotiations at the time of her interview with Vogue.

What is clear, though, is that Rihanna’s disdain for the NFL began well before Kaepernick took a knee in 2016. The friction between the Grammy-winning artist and the NFL can be traced back to 2014.

The origin of the story goes back to 2009, when Rihanna was attacked by her then-boyfriend Chris Brown during Grammy weekend in Los Angeles. Leaked images of her battered face gave new prominence to conversations about spousal and partner abuse. Five years later, domestic violence again became a topic for public analysis when TMZ released video footage on Sept. 8, 2014, of former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice knocking out his then-fiancée, Janay Palmer, in an Atlantic City elevator in February 2014.

The footage’s release came less than a week after the NFL announced that Jay-Z and Rihanna’s “Run This Town” song would be part of its Thursday Night Football opening segment before the season opener between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens. The song boasted of territorial dominance, making it an understandable choice for a football game.

But after the Rice tape was released, CBS announced it would pull “Run This Town,” which won Grammys in 2009 for best rap song and best rap/sung collaboration. Instead, the league would offer the latest developments on the Rice story.

“We thought journalistically and from a tone standpoint, we needed to have the appropriate tone and coverage,” CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus said.

Rihanna wasn’t happy. By removing a song that featured a high-profile woman who was a victim of domestic violence years earlier, a bad situation became worse. “CBS you pulled my song,” she tweeted. “… NO, F— you! Y’all are sad for penalizing me for this!”

“The audacity,” she posted in a follow-up tweet.

CBS’s decision to pull the song was also a business blow to Rihanna. She never officially declined a reported offer to perform at the 2015 Super Bowl in Arizona. But combined with the NFL’s “pay to play” stipulation in which artists were reportedly asked to give the league a portion of their post-Super Bowl tour income or a separate financial donation to secure the halftime spot, the removal of her song from a coveted time slot and feeling as if she was punished for an incident that didn’t involve her, the ingredients for turning down the biggest stage in entertainment were at play.

Involuntarily, she had become an example of how the NFL handled controversy and, specifically, how society processes abuse of women. For months, the NFL had known about the Rice tape and decided to use Rihanna’s music in its marketing rollout while ignoring the obvious dichotomy.

A half-decade later, Rihanna is an even more powerful figure and still at odds with the NFL. “There’s things within that organization that I do not agree with at all,” she shared in Vogue’s October issue. Understanding her history helps explain the distance between her and a league she believed used her victimhood against her, and one that used Kaepernick’s morals as a weapon against him.

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.