Beyond Kaepernick and Kneeling: Why JAY Z’s NFL Deal Could be Good for the Black Community

I was moved by the powerful article written by The Atlantic’s Jemele Hill entitled “Jay-Z Helped the NFL Banish Colin Kaepernick.” I felt that she captured multiple sides of the debate while firmly stating why she believes this deal with the NFL will be a bad look for JAY Z and many within the black community overall. While she made several points with which I agree, there are two main points that I would like to add to the conversation. The first is that Colin Kaepernick was banished from the league the first day he took that knee three years ago and not with JAY Z’s assistance. We just did not realize it yet. Secondly, JAY Z is right to ask the question about what the next actionable steps are beyond the kneeling and this could be a good way to get that conversation started.

Let me be clear about two points before I write any further. The first point is that I stopped watching the NFL years ago and I doubt it will ever gain me back as a fan. As a Boston native, I will never forget the night the New England Patriots won their first championship and I was driving through the streets of Kenmore Square with my brother Simba (pre-Lion King, thank you) hanging out of the moonroof high-fiving everyone in sight. I will never forget it because it was the most unified I ever saw Boston from a racial perspective. Despite my love for the game, I stopped watching before the kneeling occurred because before I realized how racist the league is, I realized how misogynistic it was after Ray Rice and so many others who received little to no penalties for domestic violence. Going home to my children every night, I could no longer justify how I could support a league that penalizes players more for abuse of drugs than abuse of their girlfriends, fiancées, and wives. The NFL could end its racism today and hire Kaepernick now and I would still not watch. It is also shameful how conversations about the NFL and its misogyny have disappeared from the headlines, but many victims are too used to that storyline.

The second point I must state is that I still support Colin Kaepernick’s activism 100%. What he did was bigger than the game and we can never forget the real issues he was fighting for, specifically the end of police misconduct. He was and still is fighting for my children and I will always hold a special place for him in my heart for that. Radio Hall of Fame personality Joe Madison often says that the difference between a moment and a movement is sacrifice. Kaepernick knew what he could be sacrificing by igniting this movement and that is why he will continue to have my respect. I have been critical of the fact that none of us who followed him know the content of his settlement with the NFL, but that is a personal decision that he made with his family and I respect that as well. The question that I would like to pose is: how long should Colin Kaepernick be the litmus test for determining progress between the NFL and the black community, particularly after he agreed to a settlement? Enter JAY Z.

Let us be clear about something. JAY Z is a businessman with an extremely keen sense of where the next trends are. He knows how to take advantage of opportunities. Former business partner and Roc-A-Fella Records co-founder said recently that JAY Z is the most opportunistic person he knows. Is that wrong, especially for a businessman? In his book Decoded, which I assign every semester for my American University class on JAY Z, he also made it clear that he left the drug world and entered the rap world because he wanted to make money. It was not about the art or the movement at the time. As he said in his song The Prelude:

I’m just a hustler described as a rapper

In fact, you can’t fit this hustle inside of a wrapper

While many were critical of JAY Z for rhymes like these and his original intentions with rap music, many of us have realized that we need to be more money and business focused if we want to really make strides in serious areas like closing the wealth gap, where it has been predicted that it would take 228 years for black people to close the wealth gap with white people. One of my favorite rappers is Talib Kweli, who is considered by some to be a “conscious” or “backpack” rapper. In an interview on the Karen Hunter Show, he stated that when he first started rapping, he just cared about the art but now that he has children going to college, he wished he paid more attention to the business side of things. This is what JAY Z has been encouraging us to do for years and this move with the NFL is a logical step in that direction…if it works out.

Similar to JAY Z ceasing his free promotion of the beverage Cristal, which he and the late Notorious B.I.G. made popular in their songs, I believe that JAY Z will sever ties with the NFL if he does not feel it is helping the black community. In an ideal world, I wish he did indeed have the blessing of Colin Kaepernick but Kaepernick has already received his money from the NFL with his settlement. Had he not received a settlement and was still fighting the NFL on that level; I would be more inclined to not support this deal between JAY Z and the NFL. As JAY Z said though, what are the actionable steps beyond the kneeling? The movement is supposed to be about social justice initiatives, right? My fear is that many of us who support Kaepernick would drop our issues with the NFL if he were allowed to lace up and play and ignore so many bigger issues. I am not speaking about serious activists like Jemele Hill or the three incredible women who founded Black Lives Matter (an organization that JAY Z has supported financially). I am referring to people who are social media act-as-ifs rather than activists.

At the end of the day, we in the black community have often supported institutions that once banished us. Once they made some effort towards equality, even in the smallest ways, we began to give them a chance, often at the expense of our own businesses and institutions . We still support some companies that still do not give a damn about us. Many of us received degrees from prestigious universities that were literally built by enslaved Africans and shunned Historically Black Colleges and Universities. We work and even become CEOs of companies that would never hire us before or sold us second-hand products. And many of us actively still listen to music and watch television and movies that depict us in the most negative ways (and yes, JAY Z admitted he has been part of that problem). When will the NFL get its chance at redemption? I may not be the best person to answer that question for reasons I have already stated but I do not believe that the answer to the question should be “When Kaepernick plays again.”

As someone who wrote a doctoral dissertation on JAY Z and who is writing a current book on him, I see JAY Z today as a Robinhood of sorts for the black community. He regrets his role in the deterioration of the black community through his drug dealing and some of the music and has been actively looking for ways to give back. He bails out fathers so they can be engaged in the lives of their children. He helpsbuild wells in African countries. He funds film projects to bring the stories of great leaders like Angela Davisand musicians like Fela Kutito a new generation of people. He funds scholarships for students from impoverished communities with “C” grade averages who otherwise would never have a chance to sit in classrooms like mine at American University, fights for prison reform, and so much more. And based off his lyrics from Izzo, “I’m overcharging n****s for what they did to the Cold Crush”, I believe he sees his partnerships with white run businesses like the NFL as a form of restitution. The aforementioned lyric in short is speaking about how black musicians have been underpaid and manipulated for centuries. He has worked to change that and has no problem getting rich in the process. Is he wrong for that? As he stated in Moment of Clarity:

I can’t help the poor if I’m one of them

So I got rich and gave back, to me that’s the win-win

Am I sharing these thoughts to absolve JAY Z? Of course not. I have been critical of some of his moves in my writings. What I am saying is that JAY Z deserves the benefit of the doubt for giving the opportunity for the NFL to put up or shut up with the world watching. Kaepernick did sacrifice his career to raise awareness about social justice. He, unfortunately, is not the first leader to not benefit from the movement he or she started, although he probably has benefitted more financially than other activists, given his contract with Nike and his settlement from the NFL. It is time to move forward and demand real action for those, unlike me, who have a desire to one day support the NFL again.


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This article appears in The Huffington Post, where I am a contributor: