The NFL Season opens today with a new controversy. Like a lot of us, I’ve been observing the blowback from the surprising partnership between the NFL and Jay-Z’s Roc Nation Company. Under any other circumstances the partnership would be applauded by just about everyone, but given the NFL’s collateral damage from the Colin Kaepernick situation and Jay-Z’s history of vocal support for Kaepernick, the partnership seemed like a desperate move on the NFL’s part and a nakedly opportunistic one on the part of Jay-Z. On its surface, the arrangement with Roc Nation could be interpreted as a step in the right direction for the NFL, who has been vilified by the Black community for initially refusing to support Kaepernick’s free speech, and then allegedly blackballing him from playing in the league. Kaepernick has said all along that his refusal to stand during the playing of the national anthem, was in protest to how Black people were being killed on the street by a law enforcement system that was rife with institutional racism. Kaepernick has since become a symbol of racial justice to the many that support his cause.
Jay-Z’s involvement makes this controversy even more interesting. The hip-hop superstar, is known as much for his activism as he is for his artistic and business acumen. Rumor has it that Jay-Z discouraged other artists from performing at the Super Bowl, in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick. If this is true, it makes the partnership even more ironic. Jay-Z has made activism part of his brand – an amazing feat considering most people think political activism is bad for business. In fact, I can’t think of another person who has balanced the inherent conflicts between activism and capitalism better than he has. Fortune Magazine recently name Jay-Z the first hip-hop billionaire. Having Roc Nation with a seat at the table, could suggest that the NFL would have the input of one of the most influential Black artists on the planet on future issues that relate to Black athletes and their fans. It is certainly possible that the partnership could end up being a positive for both sides.
My take is this: I’ve always believed Colin Kaepernick’s intentions were positive, and even though he sued and ultimately took a financial settlement from the NFL, he took enormous risk to make a bold statement in which he deeply believed. I respect that. I also believe people have the right to criticize him, providing they do it constructively. I think the NFL and Roger Goodell handled the situation poorly. Goodell is an idiot in my view and I have no idea how he has lasted so long in his job. Seventy percent of the players in the NFL are Black, but the NFL has no Black owners and very few in the front offices. Kaepernick was bringing awareness to a legitimate societal problem that affected the neighborhoods of the majority of their players. The NFL could have supported his cause in a number of ways.
That said, I think Jay-Z also deserves the benefit of the doubt. I think he is too wealthy and too smart to sell out his community for a few more bucks. However, Jay-Z made one big mistake in his deal with the NFL. The partnership announcement should have included some material commitments from the NFL that would indicate this was more than a PR play on their part. I remember at NAHREP we were approached by a company that wanted to sponsor us. This was at the peak of the foreclosure crisis and the company had been the subject of criticism for conducting business in a manner that exacerbated the damage to communities of color. We refused to accept the sponsorship unless the company agreed to modify certain business practices that we believed were causing the damage. They agreed and we accepted their sponsorship. Had we not insisted on those concessions from the sponsor, we would have been justifiably criticized by our members and stakeholders. Jay-Z’s deal with the NFL did not contain any concessions on the part of the NFL – at least none that were made public. Only time will tell whether the partnership will end up making any positive difference, but as someone who believes activism and capitalism are not mutually exclusive and can, in fact, coexist, I truly hope so.
The NFL markets its brand as well as any enterprise in the world. I heard a comedian once say that the NFL is so popular, it has its own day. NFL football is huge. Each NFL franchise brings in approximately $400M a year in revenue; almost double the annual revenue of NBA teams and 2 ½ times as much as MLB clubs.