The “no fun league” thought they did something right. On August 19, Jay-Z and the NFL announced a new partnership to collaborate on entertainment and social justice projects. Roc Nation, Shawn Carter‘s entertainment company, becomes the official NFL “live music entertainment strategist.” On paper, the deal looks great. Carter is a cultural icon, the biggest rapper in the game, and a social activist. The NFL, on the other hand, generates more than $15 billion annually. More than 100 million viewers watch the Super Bowl halftime show. Jay-Z brings his street cred and relationships with some of the biggest performers in popular music. The NFL can leverage Jay’s notoriety to break down the barriers between communities of color and the league. So why exactly is Jay-Z battling backlash for his deal with the NFL? Why has this partnership elicited so much anger from fans?
A Look at the Backlash Facing Jay-Z Due to His Deal With the NFL
What’s The Deal
The NFL deal with Jay-Z effectively makes Roc Nation the executive producer of the Super Bowl halftime show. Jay-Z and Roc Nation will also play a large role in the NFL’s Inspire Change initiative. The program is designed to bring players together working towards advancing education and economic opportunities, improving police and community relations, and working towards criminal justice reform. Both parties say the deal is an important step forward and reflective of the NFL’s commitment to helping marginalized communities.
The Backlash Context
For two years, the NFL has tried to distance itself from former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. In 2016, Kaepernick sparked a league-wide protest by kneeling during the national anthem to call attention to racial injustice and police brutality. Since becoming a free agent, Kap remains unsigned by any NFL franchise. Kaepernick believes he’s been blackballed and filed a formal grievance against the league in October 2017. The former 49ers quarterback and Carolina Panthers safety Eric Reid reportedly settled that grievance for less than $10 million this past February.
In May 2018, the NFL announced it would implement a policy barring players from kneeling on the field during the anthem. The league has walked back parts of its anti-kneeling rule. But several NFL owners are donors and supporters of President Donald Trump. Trump repeatedly attacked Kaepernick and other kneeling NFL players. Trump has called players who kneel “S.O.Bs.” The Kaepernick fallout strained relations between owners and players even more.
Jay-Z Not Helping Himself
Jay-Z has not been transparent about his motivations. That confusion has led to the backlash. Right now, he looks like a pawn, as the NFL tries to counter the accusations of racism that surrounded the Kaepernick controversy.
Jay-Z fielded questions in New York City alongside NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell the day after the formal announcement. When asked if he would kneel or stand Jay-Z said, “I think we’ve moved past kneeling and I think it’s time to go into actionable items.”
The quote angered many fans and sports commentators. For a social activist who voiced support for Kaepernick in the past, Jay-Z’s comments seemed out of touch. The relationship between law enforcement and communities of color is one of the most incendiary issues in our current political discourse.
The Jay-Z deal with NFL looks a money grab. Even worse, reports slowly leaked out after the announcement that Carter possibly agreed to work with the NFL to facilitate his owning a major stake in a franchise. There are rumors he wants to be part of a new ownership group for the Los Angeles Chargers.
The criticism of Jay-Z’s deal with the NFL has been swift and severe. Eric Reid and Colin Kaepernick’s partner Nessa Diab both expressed disappointment. As reported by Uproxx, they’re concerned the deal excluded any sort of concession toward the blackballed quarterback.
Rihanna, the long-time Jay-Z collaborator who’s also signed to Roc Nation, apparently criticized the deal too. Social activist Shaun King wrote a long Instagram post that called the deal ‘shady and wrong.’ Rihanna initially liked the post. According to the performer, the like was an error. She blamed her social media team for the error.
Miami Dolphins wide receiver Kenny Stills said, “Talking about we’re moving past kneeling like he ever protested… Choosing to speak for the people like he had spoken to the people… I wonder if he’s read my Facebook/IG comments or what people say to me… It didn’t seem very informed.” Stills has been one of the league’s leading voices in the kneeling controversy and subsequent efforts to initiate community policing reforms.
There are multiple sides to this debate. Jay-Z is the ultimate capitalist and rap’s first billionaire. Financially, the Jay-Z and NFL deal makes complete sense. A reputable argument that some fans have made is that Jay-Z can effectuate more positive change at the NFL working with them.
Jay-Z’s brand is authenticity. Shawn Carter has never shied away from his hustling past, even though he’s no longer part of that life. His career has been one long fight against the music industry for respect, just like Colin Kaepernick’s fight is against an elite class of NFL owners. Jay-Z should have done more to help to close the gulf between players and owners.