Kaepernick Is Fighting for Social Justice. What Are the NFL and Jay-Z Fighting For?

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and Jay-Z
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and Jay-Z at the Roc Nation and NFL partnership announcement on Wednesday in New York City. Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Roc Nation

On Wednesday, Jay-Z and Roger Goodell announced that the hip-hop mogul and his entertainment company Roc Nation will work with the NFL to curate and co-produce Super Bowl halftime shows and create five songs a year to be used in league promos. While those components of the partnership were extremely concrete, Jay-Z and Goodell both emphasized a more vague aspect of their agreement: a promise to take some unspecified action as part of the league’s social justice initiative. “The No. 1 thing we [talked about] was impact, that we can have an impact together, and that we can do some really positive things in our communities,” Goodell explained.

Coming from the commissioner of a league that’s practically banished Colin Kaepernick for protesting police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem, the promise by Goodell to do “positive things in our communities” rings a bit hollow. Jay-Z, meanwhile, has lent his support and credibility to the NFL despite its owners’ concerted refusal to give Kaepernick a chance to play. What he plans to do with his platform remains unknown. It’s extraordinarily clear, by contrast, what Kaepernick has chosen to do with his.

Wednesday also happened to be the third anniversary of Kaepernick’s initial silent protest: his refusal to stand for the anthem during a preseason game in 2016. To mark the occasion, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback posted this video, which as of Thursday evening had 1.9 million views on Twitter:

The video begins with the 2015 murder of Walter Scott, who was shot in the back by South Carolina police officer Michael Slager. That clip is followed by videos of the police killings of Eric Garner, Mario Woods, and Alton Sterling. Of those four, only Scott’s killer, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for second-degree murder, was ever prosecuted.

Kaepernick’s video also includes footage of people who have lost loved ones in police shootings—Michael Brown Sr., Quinyetta McMillon, LaToya Howell, Cary Ball Sr.—sharing their support. “It is our love for 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was gunned down by the police in less than two seconds, that will not allow us to bury our anger,” Kaepernick is heard saying in a clip from a speech he gave upon receiving an award last year from Amnesty International. “It is our love for Philando Castile, who was executed in front of his partner and his daughter, that keeps us fighting back. It is our love for Stephon Clark, who was lynched in his grandma’s backyard, that will not allow us to stop until we liberate our people.”

While Kaepernick’s words have been enormously influential, he’s also donated more than $1 million to various social justice causes and founded a youth camp that offers members of marginalized communities guidance on how to interact with the police. Jay-Z, for his part, has been much more socially active in recent years after facing criticism from Harry Belafonte for turninghis back on social responsibility” in 2012. His Shawn Carter Foundation provides scholarships for needy students, and he’s also pushed for criminal justice reform.

At this week’s NFL press event, though, Jay-Z didn’t offer up any specific plans. “We need something that happens every day, because there’s things happening all over this country, and there’s a lot of turmoil, and I think that we all have a responsibility to just push it forward,” referring to the social justice challenges of … something, things, turmoil, and it.

When a reporter asked Jay-Z for more details about what social change would look like to him, Goodell stepped in to say, “I’ll go first.” He then listed off “criminal justice, education, better relationships with law enforcement communities.” When Goodell was asked directly if the NFL was “making a statement about how you feel about the current state of policing in this country,” he answered “No.”

“We believe we can make our communities better by sharing perspectives,” Goodell said. “So the community understands law enforcement’s perspective, and law enforcement understands the community’s perspective.”

The perspective that Kaepernick is sharing is one that’s unflinching and unapologetic about the reality of police violence. The officer who shot the 12-year-old Rice within two seconds of confronting him was never prosecuted, got a job at a different police department, and has been supported by the Cleveland police union in his efforts to get that new job back after he’d lost it for reasons supposedly unrelated to Rice’s shooting. The officer who shot Castile, and who was charged with manslaughter and endangering Castile’s girlfriend and 4-year-old daughter, was acquitted of all charges and given $48,500 to leave the police force. The Sacramento County district attorney announced in March that the two police officers who shot and killed Clark in his grandmother’s backyard would not face charges.

“I think that we forget that Colin’s whole thing was to bring attention to social injustice, so in that case this is a success—this is the next thing,” Jay-Z said at his own event. “We get stuck on Colin not having a job, you know what I’m saying? And this is more than that.”

In promoting the good their new deal will do, Goodell and Jay-Z nodded to the league’s “Inspire Change” campaign, which has benefited nonprofit organizations such as Big Brothers Big Sisters of America and the United Negro College Fund. That campaign came about after a group calling itself the Players Coalition struck a deal with the league at the end of 2017 to promote social justice causes dear to the players’ hearts. Some of the roughly $100 million investment from that deal has gone to support grants for nonprofits that seek to help predominantly black communities, and even some organizations whose explicit goals are to challenge mass incarceration. Some of it has also gone to flashy public service announcements wherein the league vaguely burnishes its commitment to generic causes like “equality among all types of people,” while eliding what problems need to be solved. This is exactly what Carolina Panthers safety Eric Reid, who was the first to join Kaepernick in kneeling during the anthem, predicted would happen when he left the Players Coalition and accused the NFL of attempting to buy off protesting players.

As the Atlantic’s Jemele Hill wisely noted, Jay-Z would not be in a position to connect the artists he works with to the NFL’s vast audience or use the league’s platform to promote social change if not for the sacrifice Kaepernick has made. The league would never have been put into a position to fund any kinds of social justice causes if it wasn’t trying to control the movement that Kaepernick started.

While Kaepernick has mostly remained silent about all this, Reid said on Twitter this week that the Jay-Z partnership is the NFL’s latest effort to co-opt the protest movement.

“Jay-Z doesn’t need the NFL’s help 2 address social injustices,” Reid tweeted on Thursday. “It was a money move 4 him & his music business. The NFL gets 2 hide behind his black face 2 try to cover up blackballing Colin. #NeoColonialism.”

Kaepernick’s girlfriend, Nessa Diab, also accused Jay-Z of helping the league whitewash its banishment of Kaepernick. “It’s typical for the NFL to buy different PR looks to cover up their dirt—that’s nothing new. But what is disgusting and disappointing is Jay-Z let them use him,” Diab said on Instagram on Thursday. “Whether Jay-Z knew it or not (I don’t doubt his intelligence—so I would think he knew) he helped the NFL bury who he said is an iconic figure, Colin Kaepernick.”

Reid is one of the few players still carrying on Kaepernick’s legacy by taking a knee during the anthem. As one of the other remaining protesters, Miami Dolphins wide receiver Kenny Stills, has pointed out in recent days, the league’s owners continue to lend massive amounts of financial and political support to Donald Trump and other political actors who are actively fighting the social change the NFL claims to support.

“I support any protest that’s effective,” Jay-Z said on Wednesday when asked if he supported continued protests by NFL players. But then he seemed to dismiss the protesters, implying that his approach is more effective than Kaepernick’s. “I’m into action. I’m into real work—I’m not into how it looks from the outside,” he said. “If protesting on the field is the most effective way, then protest on the field. But if you have a vehicle that can inspire change and speak to the masses at the same time, it’s hard to steal the narrative away.”

Kaepernick, through his protest movement and subsequent social justice work, has inspired plenty of change. It’s the NFL, now with Jay-Z’s help, that’s been all too eager to steal that narrative away.