The worlds of sports, social justice, and hip hop are still reeling from the news that Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter, the rap legend and self-branded socially conscious billionaire, has entered into a partnership with the NFL to be the league’s “live music entertainment strategist.” Carter also plans to help direct the NFL’s “Inspire Change” initiative.
But there was Shawn Carter, grinning from ear to ear, giving an equally toothy Roger Goodell a big pound and a hug before they sat for their press conference to announce this powerhouse alliance. With the subtlety of a blowtorch, they staged this presser on the third anniversary of Kaepernick’s first anthem protest. The message was clear: This was about turning the page on Kaepernick and any protest that would directly confront racism either in the NFL or on the platform the league provides.
Carter addressed this explicitly, saying, “We forget that Colin’s whole thing was to bring attention to social injustice. In that case, this is a success. This is the next phase. There [are] two parts of protesting. You go outside and you protest, and then the company or the individual says, ‘I hear you. What do we do next?’”
This is Carter’s analysis of how change happens: You pressure corporate power until it becomes “woke,” and then they bring you in as a partner to enact social change. Carter was blessing the sincerity of the newfound social consciousness of a league that bankrolls Donald Trump, still resists hiring black coaches, and blackballs Colin Kaepernick.
He drove the point home saying,
“For me it’s like action, [an] actionable item, what are we gonna do with it? Everyone heard, we hear what you’re saying, and everybody knows I agree with what you’re saying [in Kaepernick’s underlying message]. So what are we gonna do? You know what I’m saying? [Help] millions and millions of people, or we get stuck on Colin not having a job.”
No reporters in attendance asked just how “millions and millions” of people were going to be helped by this partnership, or why people “get stuck” on Kaepernick’s unemployment. No one pointed out that it’s not about one man’s job. It’s the idea that the league feels empowered to take your livelihood if you dare step out of line.
The immediate reviews of this shotgun marriage, in some quarters, were to put it mildly, unkind. David Dennis Jr., writing for Playboy, called it “a gut punch.” The headline in the New York Daily News was, “Jay-Z sold fire in Hell, and sold Colin Kaepernick out.” Jemele Hill wrote in The Atlantic, “Jay-Z has given the NFL exactly what it wanted: guilt-free access to black audiences, culture, entertainers, and influencers”
Kaepernick’s most ardent supporter in the NFL, Carolina Panthers safety Eric Reid, slammed Carter, saying, “When has Jay Z ever taken a knee? For you to get paid to go into a NFL conference and say we are past kneeling is asinine.”
One could only imagine Goodell and the collection of NFL owners exchanging awkward high-fives as Carter caught all the flak. It’s what Carter was being paid to do.
In the days afterward, however, the news leaked that Shawn Carter would soon become a part owner of an NFL team, with designs on eventually being the first black owner in the most exclusive billionaire boys club in all the land. This earned him defenders, saying that Carter had been playing some kind of three-dimensional chess because he was leveraging this “social justice” alliance to acquire a groundbreaking, trailblazing status in the ranks of this historically hyper-restricted club of the 1 percent.
So is Shawn Carter a sellout, or just a brilliant businessman creating progress by breaking into these rarefied corridors of power?
The truth is actually much more banal. None of this is about social justice. It’s not about, as Shawn Carter put it, “helping millions and millions of people.” This partnership is happening because Shawn Carter is a billionaire who wants to be an NFL owner, and erasing Colin Kaepernick is the price of admission. Now Shawn Carter gets to multiply his fortune, and the NFL believes they will no longer be branded as racist, or have to schedule skim-milk Super Bowl halftime shows headlined by Maroon 5.
Jay-Z is a boss. Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid are workers. It is the interest of workers in the NFL to unite and say that blackballing people for their political beliefs is never going to be OK. It is in the interest of workers to stand up for their colleague. It is in Shawn Carter’s interest to stand up for himself. It’s not “millions and millions” who are going to be helped. It’s one person. It’s Jay-Z’s ultimate hustle—a hustle he told us, over 20 years ago, we were never to knock.
As Eric Reid said when the news broke, “Jay-Z claimed to be a supporter of Colin…and now he’s going to be a part owner.… It’s kind of despicable.” It is despicable. It’s also the reality of doing business. Colin Kaepernick is a worker. Shawn Carter is a boss. Better to have clarity on that question than the idea that billionaires will ever lead social movements in anyone’s interests other than their own.