Hasn’t the NFL suffered enough? On Wednesday — perhaps not coincidentally the third anniversary of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeling during "The Star-Spangled Banner" — the National Football League took the unprecedented step of dragging rap star and media mogul Jay-Z onto a stage to declare that football is now woke.
Except that no one believed him — including Kaepernick.
Jay-Z’s company, Roc Nation, announced it would be partnering with the NFL to run their live music program, in essence acting as a consultant and talent pipeline for events like the Super Bowl halftime show (which Jay-Z dissed last year in his verse on The Carters' "Apes---," rapping "I said no to the Superbowl, you need me, I don't need you"). In addition to getting a much-needed street cred injection from Roc Nation after last year's much-maligned Maroon 5 performance, the NFL also gets Jay-Z as the public face of its Inspire Change program, which focuses on issues such as “Education and Economic Advancement, Improving Police-Community Relations, and Criminal Justice Reform.” (All of these issues were capitalized in the press release from the NFL, so that you know they’re taking this Very Seriously.)
The rollout of this partnership included a splashy media event at which Jay-Z shared oxygen with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who has received criticism for pretty much every aspect of his job but most notably the way the league handled Kaepernick’s protest of police brutality and his subsequent banishment from his chosen profession.
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It was at this event that Jay, the new public face of the NFL's program focusing on "Improving Police-Community Relations and Criminal Justice Reform," was quoted as saying “I think we’re past kneeling” — a direct rebuke of Kaepernick’s political legacy and the action that began the entire conversation in football about racial inequality in policing and an athlete’s role in promoting social justice.
Now, it would be unfair to characterize Jay’s comment as being anti-Kap: The full context of his quote makes clear that he intended to say that symbolic gestures are useful to a point, but action must be taken to further good causes. Still, not only is Kaepernick not involved in this initiative and is still not employed by an NFL team, he has not even spoken to Jay-Z about the relationship between Roc Nation and the league. Kaepernick’s significant other, the radio personality Nessa, even tweeted to refute a TMZ report that Kap and Jay had discussed the Inspire Change program.
NBA superstar Michael Jordan once famously said that “Republicans buy sneakers, too,” when asked about his lack of political involvement. It’s a modern twist on the idiom: If you stand for nothing, you stand for everyone. The goal of the brand, the businessperson, the mogul or the celebrity is universal acclaim, and it’s increasingly clear that some believe it’s not good business to alienate any demographic, and better to play one's politics as close to the middle as possible. Jay-Z has proven time and again that his first priority is his bank account, that his guiding light is a wad of cash. Best to not upset those who have it to give.
And the NFL (and Jay-Z) are not alone in their desire to court liberals without courting controversy from conservatives. Major League Soccer, America’s professional men’s soccer league, recently reiterated their ban on all forms of political messaging in their stadiums not explicitly promoted by the league itself. Not only does that include the insidious creep of fascist ideology in club supporters’ groups, it also implicates anti-hate posters and signs. For instance, the league’s Portland Timbers franchise recently banned the symbol of the “Iron Front” from its stadium, an anti-Nazi symbol of a 1930s Germany resistance group. Supporters have said the symbol only represents their defiance in the face of bigotry; opponents — and Portland has regularly hosted white nationalist and alt right protests since the election of Donald Trump — claim that it's a symbol of anti-fascism and thus anti-conservative. But the Timbers and the league don’t feel the need to make a distinction. We’re now living in a world where declaring yourself as standing in opposition to fascism is a step too far.
But that’s sports in 2019: ever eager to bury its head in the sand when issues arise that could interfere with the happy exchange of currency.
The NFL’s aim is surely not entirely altruistic: Their blessed game was tarnished by the Kaepernick controversy, Donald Trump’s attacks during the 2017 season and a culture war that threatens to alienate the NFL’s fans from its product — as well as ongoing revelations of traumatic brain injuries to players and the league's effort to deflect its culpability.
Unlike the more cosmopolitan, European play of MLS, the NFL is America’s Game. No one is walking into a football stadium chanting about fascists. Many fans demand politics be kept out of the game, and that dissenters like Kap, Eric Reid and Kenny Stills hush up and play ball.
The NFL, like Jay-Z, wants to stand for everyone. It’s good business to be both the deeply red heartland’s favorite sport while also hip enough to remain popular in the African American and Latino communities that funnel players into their system. In order for the NFL to retain its status as a cross-cultural entertainment behemoth, it has to live in both worlds. Jay-Z is their corporate olive branch, and he is clearly more than happy to cash the check — despite famously turning down the Super Bowl halftime show years ago.
This is, of course, not the first time in recent years that an African American artist has been used as cover for accusations of racial bias. And part of Kaepernick’s message has always been that it’s not acceptable to profit off the backs of minorities who are still living with the scars of oppression, and that these issues have been ignored for too long. The NFL’s solution is a fancy press conference, a few buzzwords and a lucrative music deal as the sweet frosting on top.
It’s unlikely the NFL will take any particularly controversial stands on the issues for which Jay-Z will serve as their public face, nor will they partner with groups like Black Lives Matter that might alienate the other half of this perpetual social drama. We’ll hear about Inspire Change once or twice a year, probably during Super Bowl week or at the NFL Draft. Someone will hand out a large check. There will be smiles and stern faces of determination. The Hard Work (capitalized for extreme seriousness) is being done.
But Colin Kaepernick will still not have a job. We certainly are past kneeling — and if the NFL has its way, eventually we’ll forget it even happened.