Last week, the billionaire music mogul and Roc Nation founder Jay Z announced a multi-year partnership with the NFL, with the stated goal of enhancing "the league's social justice efforts." In addition to advising on the selection of artists for major NFL events, Roc Nation will team with the organization to "nurture and strengthen community through football and music," including through the NFL's social justice-focused "Inspire Change" initiative, which purports to "support programs and initiatives that reduce barriers to opportunity," with a focus on "education and economic advancement; police and community relations; and criminal justice reform."
Reactions to the partnership over the past week have been mixed, even within the Black community—particularly in light of the league's ongoing treatment of Colin Kaepernick, who has been effectively blackballed from the NFL since the end of the 2016 season, after he started kneeling during the national anthem to highlight racial injustice. The question everyone seemed to be debating, one which has larger ramifications for discussions of race in America, was this: Can you really say you're taking steps to fight inequality when you're teaming with the organization that punished Kaepernick for bringing it to light?
Rapper Freddie Gibbs has stood by Jay Z, arguing that the out-of-court settlement Kaepernick accepted earlier this year after filing a collusion grievance against the NFL represented the end of the saga and that Jay Z owed the ex-QB nothing. Eric Reid and Kenny Stills—players continuing to kneel, in solidarity with Kaepernick—seemed furious. After a preseason game, Reid answered questions about the agreement while standing in front of his locker in a black #7 Kaepernick jersey, pointing out the hypocrisy of the partnership in light of Jay Z's past stances regarding Kaepernick and the NFL. Stills answered questions after a Dolphins preseason game, saying, "He's not an NFL player, he's never taken a knee." Colin Kaepernick's lawyer, Mark Geragos, told ABC News that the "deal between Jay-Z and the NFL crosses the intellectual picket line." Kaepernick, for his part, offered support for Reid, Stills, and Albert Wilson II, who also continues to kneel: "My Brothers @E_Reid35 @KSTiLLS @iThinkIsee12 continue to fight for the people, even in the face of death threats. They have never moved past the people and continue to put their beliefs into action."
For some, it seemed that Jay Z had joined a long list of high-profile people using the fallout of the Kaepernick scandal for their own benefit. Over the past few years, the current president has added the story to his greatest hits, targeting Kaepernick during rallies with barbs ranging from "son of a bitch" to boasts about his tweets keeping Kaepernick unemployed. Vice President Mike Pence staged a walkout at an Indianapolis Colts game, claiming to be so upset with players from the opposing team kneeling during the anthem—including then-San Francisco 49er and close friend of Colin Kaepernick, Eric Reid—that he left after the song.
Even those who ostensibly support the quarterback have been making similarly self-interested moves. Three weeks after Kaepernick's first demonstration during the 2016 preseason, Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins began raising a fist during the national anthem, a gesture he claimed was intended to honor Olympic track legends John Carlos and Tommie Smith. But the following year, instead of continuing to protest, he co-founded the "Players Coalition"—a grantmaking advocacy organization focused on "criminal justice reform, law enforcement/community relations and education." Then he announced that the Players Coalition would be entering into a seven-year partnership with the NFL, to the tune of $89 million.
Shortly after the news broke, Jenkins announced that he'd be ending his demonstrations, saying, "All of this really is in good faith, and I think if the league continues to come through or deliver on their word, then I see no need to go back to what I was doing." The following day, the NFL announced a new policy stating that all players must stand for the anthem or remain in the locker room and that teams of players who disobeyed would be subject to a fine. (The NFL Players Association quickly filed a grievance over the policy, which was suspended, then later discarded.)
Reid has dubbed the Jay Z partnership "Players Coalition 2.0"—and it's easy to see why, especially when Roc Nation and the Players Coalition are now teaming up under the auspices of the "Inspired Change" initiative. After all, they seem to serve a similar function, paradoxically framing the very organization that retaliated against Kaepernick's activism as one dedicated to social justice. The NFL's announcement of the Jay Z agreement is full of typical press release jargon, including multiple mentions of "community" without specificity. At times, it strikes a defensive tone: Jay Z invokes the initial skepticism surrounding his music streaming service, Tidal. "I've been in this position many times," he explains. "Take Tidal as a great example from five years ago. Now people look at it today, people have a different outlook on it. But at the time, people didn't see what was going on."
Two days after the announcement, Jay Z addressed Kaepernick head-on during a Q&A segment on NFL Network's Total Access Live. When asked if he himself would stand or kneel during the anthem, the rapper stressed that kneeling had achieved its aim a long time ago and that direct action—presumably action he could not take on his own, with Kaepernick, or without the NFL—was the next evolution of justice. (How Kaepernick's Million Dollar Pledge, which gave a total of $1 million to more than 30 organizations across a broad range of initiatives, and his Know Your Rights Camp nonprofit, aimed at giving kids in disadvantaged areas preparation for higher education and instruction on interacting with law enforcement did not qualify as immediate, direct action was not addressed). He then set about trying to demonstrate kneeling was no longer necessary, calling on random audience members to ask whether they were already aware of what the kneeling was about.
Later in the Q&A, the rapper addressed the irony of partnering with an organization that, despite its sudden interest in social justice, would nonetheless ostracize social justice's most visible proponent in football. "Kneeling was not about a job; it was about injustice. Let me bring attention to injustice. Everybody's saying, 'How are you going forward if Kap doesn't have a job?' This wasn't about him having a job." In a way, he's right: Kaepernick's demonstration during the anthem wasn't about not having a job (he had one at the time); it was about police brutality and racial inequality. It only became a question of his employment after every NFL team decided that he was untouchable, and refused to sign him in favor of lesser talents. This is such an obvious point that one wonders just how blind Jay Z is willing to render himself, and for what purpose; Claiming that your fight against injustice represents exactly the sort of direct action that Kaepernick's demonstrations called for is a hard sell when you're ignoring the injustice under your nose.
Following Kaepernick's exile from the league, a bunch of old wealthy white men were being asked questions about social and racial injustice that they couldn't answer—and didn't truly care about. A high-profile partnership appeared to be the perfect way out. In a 2018 meeting with the players and owners, of which The New York Times obtained leaked audio, Buffalo Bills owner Terry Pegula stated as much: "We need a spokesman. For us to have a face, as an African-American, at least a face that could be in the media, we could fall in behind that."
In other words, any Black face would do. But Roger Goodell and the billionaires within the NFL's ownership found one of the most recognizable ones in a fellow billionaire.
It's not hard to see why Jay Z's business ambitions would lead him to convince himself that this move was a savvy one. Though the partnership reads as philanthropy with a dash of advisory, it's conceivably a path to one of the most powerful billionaire's clubs in America, not to mention the country's most profitable sports league. Not coincidentally, rumors of a deal for the rapper—who sold his minority ownership stake of the Brooklyn Nets in 2013—to obtain a significant ownership interest in an NFL team are already beginning to swirl.
By using verbal shell games to justify the move as a charitable endeavor, Jay Z glosses over the reality that Kaepernick's kneeling didn't merely raise awareness of the range of injustices suffered by people of color, or the fact that Black people are murdered by law enforcement sans justice or accountability. Intentionally or not, by taking a knee, he also revealed white America's hierarchy of compassions: its incapacity to acknowledge injustice unless it is framed in a way that feels comfortable.
For centuries, white America has had plenty of opinions on how Black Americans protest discrimination and structural inequality—opinions that invariably outnumber proposed solutions, to say nothing of introspection or accountability. Videos of Black people being murdered by law enforcement continue to circulate on the internet, and a study published this month by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that being killed by police is the leading cause of death among young Black men in America. Still, excuses for this brutalization are made up and readily believed.
One common refrain is that more people would care about injustice if it was presented in a different way—or by a different, less controversial person. And while it has been proven over and over, in study after study, that Black people have significantly less wealth than white Americans due to lasting effects of slavery, not to mention mass land dispossession and the disproportionate application of social programs; receive separate and unequal education; and continue to experience the effects of a wage gap that has grown by more than five percent across all income levels since 2000, discussion of these problems is too often framed in terms of charity. Initiatives like "Inspire Change" seem expressly designed to satisfy that framing requirement without directly addressing the larger injustices that lie beneath it.
Ultimately, in the case of Kaepernick, injustice had to be fought in a way that made white Americans more comfortable, one in which solutions are proposed without the pesky requirement of acknowledging the root causes that necessitate them. But charity is not a preventative; it does nothing to ensure that the wrong can't, or won't, happen again. Justice, however, is a complete restructuring. It demands full accountability—a step that the NFL's owners seem determined to circumvent.
Still, when all was said and done, the Commissioner Goodell and NFL owners needed to find a way to avoid being held accountable for what they did, and continue to do, to Colin Kaepernick. After all, it's a league made up of, and reliant on, seventy percent Black men. What the NFL found was more than just a Black face that wasn't Kaepernick's; it was one that was arguably more recognizable. Better yet, for their purposes, they found someone who was willing to underscore the assertion that Kaepernick had gone about things the wrong way.
In this, Jay Z's partnership with the NFL is a remarkably diabolical trifecta: it accomplishes the cozy framing of solutions to racial injustice as charity, removes accountability from the league's owners, and further casts Colin Kaepernick as a pariah. With this move, Jay Z joins the League, Commissioner Roger Goodell, President Donald Trump, and Vice President Mike Pence in perpetuating the injustice that's the easiest to undo.
This article originally appeared on VICE US.