Jay-Z and the NFL: Business as usual, or a path to social change?

Why We Wrote This

How should we respond to the need to make the world more just? Our guest columnist offers her view of the approaches of rapper Jay-Z and quarterback Colin Kaepernick and finds room for both. 

Ben Hider/NFL/AP
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell (left) and Jay-Z appear at a news conference at the rapper's company, Roc Nation, in New York on Aug. 14, 2019. Events like a free concert in Chicago on the first day of the regular season, Sept. 5, are one result of the new partnership.

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Three years ago, then-NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick first sat and later knelt during the national anthem to bring attention to the killing of black people by police. That year, black men were nine times more likely than any other group to be killed by the police.

Music mogul Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter, who supported Mr. Kaepernick’s protests, has faced backlash recently for entering a partnership with the NFL to provide entertainment and support the league’s social justice slate of programs. Critics accuse the rapper of selling out.

Beyond the hype, though, there is an important question to explore in the different approaches of these two men: How should we respond to the need to make the world a more just place? Should we address the symptoms, empowering individuals who can go on to make a better world, or do we attack the systems, pulling out inequity at the root and negotiating new power relationships?

Justice will never be a who but a how. When the conversation stalls around making heroes and villains of the personalities involved instead of focusing on the mechanics of change, we miss the opportunity to explore the more nuanced answers for how we get better. 

The NFL kicks off the regular season on Thursday with more than just a game in Chicago. A free concert featuring pop singer Meghan Trainor and rapper Meek Mill promoting the league’s social justice campaign, Inspire Change, which debuted in January, will also take place in the Windy City. The concert is part of the recently announced and controversial partnership between the NFL and music mogul Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter.  

That partnership, which aims to provide entertainment and support the league’s social justice slate of programs, was met with both criticism and praise when it was unveiled in August. Rumblings about Jay-Z making the deal without the involvement of apparently blackballed quarterback Colin Kaepernick – whose protests were supported by Jay-Z – started right away. They grew with a report, now in question, that the rapper planned to become part owner of a team. The announcement of a concert series and a merchandise line further frustrated critics, who complain that Jay-Z is selling out and that he and the NFL are throwing shallow solutions at systemic problems. In typical pop culture process, people are taking sides online to stump for their favorite as if it’s a rap battle. 

Three years ago, Mr. Kaepernick first sat and later knelt during the national anthem to bring attention to the killing of black people by police. In that year, black men were nine times more likely than any other group to be killed by the police, yet the maelstrom of criticism that followed focused on questioning Mr. Kaepernick’s patriotism, not police shootings.

Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports/File
San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker Eli Harold (58), quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7), and free safety Eric Reid (35) kneel in protest during the playing of the national anthem before an NFL game against the Arizona Cardinals in Santa Clara, California, Oct. 6, 2016.

Beyond the hype there is an important question to explore in the different approaches of Jay and Colin: How should we respond to the need to make the world a more just place? Should we address the symptoms, empowering individuals who can go on to make a better world, or do we attack the systems, pulling out inequity at the root and negotiating new power relationships?

Jay-Z’s approach is to try to better adapt and thrive in the existing structure. Taking a seat at the table, working to create room for others, opening up opportunities to those often left out, and inspiring people to grow are important ways to help pitch a bigger tent. Inclusion seeks to let marginalized people into spaces they are blocked from, and provide a chance for individuals to reach their full potential. Such adaptive measures do much to lift individuals but ultimately leave unequal systems in place.

Mr. Kaepernick’s approach seeks to remove the barriers that block marginalized groups from their potential. Addressing police brutality and a penal system that has treated many people of color unjustly, and trying to protect basic freedoms like the First and Fourth amendments, Mr. Kaepernick says he seeks to secure freedom for all people, and liberation from the systems that are seen as generating and protecting inequity. Work to change the system is difficult, requiring legal and cultural shifts. 

Increasing access and opportunity for those shut out from power repairs inequity by balancing the scale: Think of the Democrats’ inclusive slate of candidates in the 2018 midterm elections, leading to the most diverse class of incoming representatives to Washington. But some wonder if it makes sense to fight to be included in systems that are flawed. Freshmen congresswomen on “the squad,” lauded for their diversity, have faced backlash for their advocacy. When fresh voices speak up, can existing systems tune in to listen? 

Alternatively, addressing the sources of oppressive systems puts the focus on perpetrators and policies that reproduce inequities, stamping them out at their root. The Time’s Up movement against sexual harassment has fought to hold perpetrators legally accountable, making progress by dismantling a system that enabled bad actors and working to change the laws so they protect victims, not their victimizers. Changing systems is slow, difficult, and disruptive, taking years, sometimes generations to feel the effects. Some question whether we can afford to take the long, hard road when there is so much urgency for change right now.      

Justice will never be a who but a how. When the conversation stalls around making heroes and villains of the personalities involved instead of focusing on the mechanics of change, we miss the opportunity to explore the more nuanced answers for how we get better. 

Guest columnist Susan X Jane works to help individuals and institutions create more equitable environments as the principal of Navigators Consulting and blogs about race and media at smntks.com.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to note that the members of "the squad" are congresswomen. 

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