When I saw the recently announced partnership between Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter and the NFL, I must admit the deal made me scratch my face, furrow my brow and go, “hmm.”
Not because I’m confused about why the NFL would want to team up with Jay-Z and Roc Nation. No, I’m clear about that. After all the hits the old-guard league took on social justice matters, the optics of partnering with someone like “Hov” — a rapper-turned-billionaire with top-shelf street cred in the black community — are pretty damned good. For the league it’s a brilliant move.
Yet, there’s another aspect to this, one that is on the minds of many following the announcement: Why would Jay-Z do it?
If you remember, Jay-Z has been a staunch supporter of Colin Kaepernick, the man who brought social injustice to an uncomfortable forefront for the NFL and has not played in the league since the 2016 season. Not only has Jay-Z worn a Kaepernick jersey on stage, he has also criticized rappers for performing at the Super Bowl.
That’s what is clearly on the mind of Kaepernick’s friend and confidant, Carolina Panthers safety Eric Reid, who released a series of tweets in which he said that Kaepernick is not a part of the Jay-Z-NFL deal and called the situation “Players Coalition 2.0,” a group he bolted. He also suggested that the timing of the partnership was an attempt to take attention away from Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross’ fundraiser for President Donald Trump.
Interestingly enough, Jay-Z’s statement on his partnership with the NFL strikes a similarity to the league’s goals of moving from on-field protests to tangible community progress.
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"With its global reach, the National Football League has the platform and opportunity to inspire change across the country," Jay-Z said. "Roc Nation has shown that entertainment and enacting change are not mutually exclusive ideas — instead, we unify them. This partnership is an opportunity to strengthen the fabric of communities across America."
Jay-Z elaborated further at a news conference Wednesday, and according to ESPN’s Jason Reid, Jay-Z said he spoke with Kaepernick (which Kaepernick’s girlfriend Nessa later noted did not come before the announcement of the partnership), but would not reveal what was said.
What’s more, according to ESPN, Jay-Z also said that he’s focusing on helping as many people as he can and working on the system from within, language that is directly in line with the justification (right or wrong) the Players Coalition has used to defend its partnership with the league.
All of this has led to consternation in some quarters about Jay-Z’s decision to strike the deal, while some are also outright pondering if Jay-Z sold out Kaepernick.
While it’s true that Jay-Z has embraced capitalism for years, there’s also reason to believe the 49-year-old wouldn’t make a decision like this without having a bigger master plan, especially since he’s produced more socially-conscious rap in recent years. Take the brilliant “The Story of O.J.,” for instance, in which he preached the importance of black ownership and the reinvestment of money in the black community while simultaneously shaming those who turn their back on their own.
So … let’s just see what happens.
All we know at the moment is that Kaepernick has been left out, and while that’s fodder for those ready to assume the worst, there could easily be something more to this for Jay-Z because getting paid to produce Super Bowl halftime shows and televised NFL promotional spots sure doesn’t seem like it’s worth the criticism that will come unless he has a master plan.
Jay-Z famously went from the block to a billionaire, an accomplishment that can only be done through ruthless calculation. Maybe he quietly sees this partnership as a path to becoming the NFL’s first black team owner, for instance, or maybe he simply thinks he can make a significant impact on the NFL’s social justice issues from the inside. Jay-Z has also insisted that he will operate with autonomy on NFL projects, which is potentially very powerful, too.
So yes, while the NFL — which is clearly the early beneficiary in the immediate aftermath of the announcement — has been playing chess, not checkers, on this social justice issue for years, it’s also possible that Jay-Z plays chess, too. If he does - and he wins - it will only enhance his legacy.
Those stuck in limbo regarding the legendary rapper’s latest decision are eager to see him do so. Anything less would be a disappointment.
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