On Friday, the NFL announced that it thinks that the league's fans are a bunch of morons.
More specifically, according to a press release, "Today, the NFL and Roc Nation announced the launch of Inspire Change apparel and Songs of the Season as part of their new partnership." In English: Jay-Z's entertainment company is helping the NFL come out with an apparel line and a program that will highlight a bunch of musical artists. (The first "Inspire Change" advocates will be Meek Mill, Rapsody, and Meghan Trainor.) This will raise money to "fund and support Inspire Change programs across the country." Though it's unclear where exactly this money will end up, Complex reported that the Inspire Change advocates will host two organizations at a kickoff event on September 5, BBF Family Services and Crushers Club, which aim to help at-risk youth in Chicago.
No doubt these groups do great work, and surely Meek and the other artists involved in this program are trying to do something good. If money is raised that eventually goes to helping people, that should be celebrated. (VICE has asked the NFL which nonprofits it is specifically planning on supporting.) But this is also a deeply cynical branding exercise from the most reactionary sports league in the U.S., and no one should take this as a sign that the NFL suddenly cares about "education and economic empowerment, police and community relations, and criminal justice reform," which are the stated "key priorities of Inspire Change."
One person missing from this celebration of corporate beneficence is football's most famous social justice advocate, Colin Kaepernick, who was effectively blackballed from the NFL and settled out of court with the league this year. Kaepernick's allies among NFL players have largely called out the league and Jay-Z for co-opting the very cause they have risked their careers for. One of them, Miami Dolphins wide receiver Kenny Stills, who still takes a knee before every game, got trolled after he spoke out against the initiative when his coach Brian Flores played a series of Jay-Z songs at practice.
Not that fans need further evidence that the NFL is run by reactionaries. They can remember that now-deceased Houston Texas owner Bob McNair compared players to prison inmates, and that another owner, Jerry Richardson, was accused of sexual harassment and racism and was forced to sell the Carolina Panthers. They can think back to the NFL's laughably insufficient response to a series of high-profile domestic violence incidents involving players, a response that included partnering with No More, a nonprofit that, as Deadspin reported, is more of a branding operation than a charity. Or they can google "NFL CTE" and read article after article about the league's efforts to deny that the high-contact sport caused brain damage, which destroyed the lives of the players who made millions for those racist owners. Then there's the NFL's propaganda-humping for the U.S. military, a project that included the deification of Pat Tillman, a former NFL player who joined the Army and was killed by friendly fire in an incident the military initially tried to cover up.
That's an incomplete list of the variety of ugly facts the average liberal NFL fan has to sweep under their mental rug if they want to watch the most popular sport in the country. The league has been a fundamentally conservative militarized nightmare for decades, and lefties have had to either ignore the NFL's politics, point to a handful of genuine progressive players as role models, or not watch. (Which makes the boycott demands of some conservatives in response to Kaepernick seem hysterical—politics has been in football since the start, right-wingers just haven't noticed because they agreed with those politics.)
That's not to say the NFL is irredeemable. It could hypothetically become more tolerant of liberal views among its players and start treating problems like domestic violence with the gravity they deserve. But that effort would mean changing the internal practices of the league—working to hire more black coaches, for instance—not launching yet another star-studded branding exercise to pander to the fans who trust Kaepernick far more than NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. But cynical pandering, at this point, is all the NFL knows how to do.
Correction: An earlier version of this article said that Jerry Richardson was dead. He sold the Carolina Panthers, but remains alive. VICE regrets the error.
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