Jay-Z's Partnership With The NFL Never Made Sense. It Makes Even Less Sense 3 Years Later.

In 2019, the Movement for Black Lives and the NFL were diametrically opposed. The NFL used Jay-Z to help smooth things over, but what did Jay-Z gain?
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and Jay-Z at the announcement of the NFL partnership at Roc Nation on Aug. 14, 2019 in New York City.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and Jay-Z at the announcement of the NFL partnership at Roc Nation on Aug. 14, 2019 in New York City.
Kevin Mazur via Getty Images

The Los Angeles Rams will face off against the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl LVI on Sunday. While the game will be a battle between an aging quarterback playing for a legacy and a young gunslinger with nothing to lose, the halftime show promises to be a sprawling event of hip-hop luminaries. And, it should be, considering Jay-Z and his company Roc Nation are producing the show.

For nearly three years, Roc Nation has been responsible for creating a star-studded event during the crescendo of football season. It’s the other half of the deal that Jay-Z made with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell back in 2019. And it’s often the only part people remember because it was the part that got people calling the rapper-turned-businessman a sellout.

In the fall of 2019, after former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was blackballed from the NFL for protesting against police brutality, the league announced that it would be partnering with none other than Sean “Jay-Z” Carter. It was startling news considering Jay-Z had prided himself on being an anti-corporate rapper who was quick to call for a boycott.

In 1999, he boycotted the Grammys after the music award show ignored DMX’s meteoric rise, including having two No. 1 albums in the same year. In 2006, Jay-Z pointed out hip-hop’s impact on luxury brands such as Cristal champagne, and when he realized that the love wasn’t mutual, he banned the high-priced alcohol from being sold at his sports lounge, 40/40 Club.

“It has come to my attention that the managing director of Cristal, Frédéric Rouzaud, views the ‘hip-hop’ culture as ‘unwelcome attention,’” Jay-Z said at the time, per the wine magazine Decanter. “I view his comments as racist and will no longer support any of his products through any of my various brands, including the 40/40 Club, nor in my personal life.”

Jay-Z was also known for spitting socially conscious lyrics in many of his raps. He noted the significance of former President Barack Obama’s cultural makeup in “My President is Black (Remix).” He took listeners on a ride from poverty-based behavior to making his money work for him in “The Story of OJ.” He wore a custom Kaepernick jersey during his appearance on “Saturday Night Live” in 2017. He even told the NFL to kick rocks in 2017 after the league reportedly asked him to perform during the next Super Bowl. But the rapper didn’t just tell the league no — he rapped about it afterward on “Apesh*t,” his wife Beyoncè’s song: “I said no to the Super Bowl: You need me, I don’t need you. Every night we in the end zone, tell the NFL we in stadiums too.”

It was a bold lyric that put the uber elite NFL on notice. Jay-Z was essentially saying, ”I will not be your errand boy when the Black community demands better from its government. No matter what you’re offering, I already have it, so don’t expect me to help smooth things over.” It was a proud moment of togetherness during Kaepernick’s protest. This wasn’t just a rapper turning his back on the NFL; this was the biggest rapper alive telling the NFL, “I sell out the same stadiums you play in.”

Then, everything changed. News outlets got word that Jay-Z and Goodell had an announcement to make, and then they laid it all on us: Jay-Z’s Roc Nation would be joining the NFL to start a social justice movement and produce halftime shows. It was a punch to the kidneys. The man who had once prided himself with making money outside of the law had sided with the opps.

It was clear what the NFL got from this new union: As writer Jemele Hill pointed out in The Atlantic, “Jay-Z has given the NFL exactly what it wanted: guilt-free access to Black audiences, culture, entertainers and influencers.”

But no one could figure out how the rapper benefited from changing sides. If Jay-Z sold out, then what did he gain? It was something even he had rapped about in the song “Flux Capacitor” with Jay Electronica: “Why would I sell out? I’m already rich, don’t make no sense. Got more money than Goodell, a whole NFL bench.”

It’s still unclear now, almost three years after the deal was announced. But some money has been spent on social justice work. Since the merger, the NFL has created Inspire Change, the league’s social impact branch, which focuses on education and economic development, community and police relations, and criminal justice reform. The NFL has given what amounts to tax write-offs for one of the most lucrative sports industries in the world. While money is essential to any cause, it’s a hollow gesture. Think of the NFL as the rich dad who never sees his children but buys them all the toys they want.

These days, the NFL is dealing with an explosive class-action lawsuit from former coach Brian Flores, who claims the NFL is racist, among many other things. It’s a league that has always been plagued with race issues. From its inception, the NFL has been considered a club for rich white guys. Almost all of its owners have been white, while 70% of the players are Black. The philanthropic arm of the NFL only seems to reach out when it realizes it has an enormous PR problem, which is what makes the Roc Nation deal so troubling: Jay-Z had to have known that he was being used, and he agreed to it — possibly to have access to a club that doesn’t want him.

Since the merger, no signature piece of social justice reform has been firmly attributed to the deal between the hip-hop megastar and the NFL. There has been very little in the way of actionable items, and it’s unclear what grant partnerships Inspire Change has made with community organizations. What also seems odd is that Jay-Z has continued his own efforts to push for social justice reform. Since its founding in 2008, Roc Nation has been heavily involved in the Movement for Black Lives — making donations, leading philanthropic initiatives, and executive producing documentaries such as “Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story.”

So why, then, did Jay-Z and Roc Nation need to partner with the NFL? They didn’t. Sometimes, the answer is precisely what it appears to be. No matter what Jay-Z has done in his rap career, no matter what level of success or money he’s reached, no matter how globally successful both he and his wife are, he would never have access to the club of rich white men. Yes, Jay-Z sold out Kaepernick’s movement so that he could cozy up to NFL owners. At least that’s how it looks some three years later. Some people even believe that the long game Jay-Z is playing is NFL ownership. But that won’t happen. The good old boys club is full of good old boys for a reason. NFL owners are not only wealthy; they are Republican. Most of them have donated to Republican campaigns, including that of former President Donald Trump, who not only despised players protesting during the Movement for Black Lives, but also called the mothers of Black player-protesters “bitches.”

And in news that would be shocking only to South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, Republicans believe the NFL has already done too much for Black players, and some have started to lose interest in the NFL.

A Los Angeles Times/Survey Monkey poll found that many Republicans think the NFL is doing “too much to show respect for its Black players.” They don’t want the NFL to fight racism. They like their NFL just the way it is, and for some reason, Jay-Z — the man who sold himself as the Black Dickensian street hustler-turned-businessman — wants a seat at the table, even if that means compromising the fight for Black liberation to get it.