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The Gift and the Grift: What’s Jay-Z’s NFL Deal Really About?

Or: Should we expect the person who once said “I’m a business, man” to behave any other way?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Today, we confront the most vexed of vexed questions: Is it “Oochie Wally,” or is it “One Mic”?

People thought one of two things when they saw Jay-Z and Beyoncé in the Louvre with only a small crew of backup dancers and no museum staff to keep them away from the priceless art. One was that the Carters could be noble gate-crashers, carrying blackness into spaces where it had long been neglected or mined for profit, and throwing it down stylishly, with both hands. The other, simpler way to read “Apeshit” was as two wealthy people spending their Tuesday evening doing stuff we (mere mortals) can only fantasize about: dancing barefoot next to the Venus de Milo; fogging the glass on the Mona Lisa; walking through history and having the cash on hand to buy a piece of it should the mood strike.

Buying into the Carter cottage industry has been both about, and something like, voting for blackness with your dollars. At least since 2015, when Jay’s streaming service, Tidal, was beat up so badly in the press that he freestyled about it (“Lucy you got some ’splainin’ to do / the only one they hating on look the same as you”). When 2017’s 4:44 wasn’t focusing on marital crisis or making amends, Jay was rapping about how black people could better spend their money—on artwork, on land, on other things that appreciate in value. Black-owned businesses are a necessary waypost to progress, but out of 10, how many would survive the roadblocks and trip wires in the current economic system? How many people have the $2 million to buy into DUMBO before it was DUMBO?

Last week brought another Jay-Z thing for people to be of two minds about: The rapper is going to work closely with the NFL this season as a “live entertainment strategist,” and his company Roc Nation will aid the league in redoubling its efforts to affect social change:

A core component of the partnership will be to amplify the Inspire Change platform priority areas identified by NFL Players, including Education and Economic Advancement, Improving Police-Community Relations, and Criminal Justice Reform.

Seems fine, even if the “amplify” here does seem to be visibly sweating, almost as much as the rest of the buzzwords. In fact, on Earth II, where the NFL is an attentive, verging-on-proactive agent for social change, this announcement is hailed as a confident step forward and a devastating blow against institutional racism, which is what this was all about in the first place.

But here, in reality, Colin Kaepernick stirred a leaguewide protest to spotlight racial inequality in 2016, became a free agent in 2017, and now, today, as I write this, remains a free agent. After bringing a collusion case against the league in October 2017, Kaepernick eventually settled in February for an undisclosed amount, believed to be less than $10 million. This amounts to winning back severance pay, and isn’t, in itself, a meaningful resolution. Several franchise owners are supporters of and donors to President Donald Trump, including Robert Kraft, who played a key role in facilitating the deal between Roc Nation and the league. Before the start of last season, players were threatened with fines if they didn’t “stand and show respect” for the national anthem. The policy didn’t stick, but the NFL is still suffering from a many-faced perception problem, and partnering with Jay-Z just seems like a first-thought PR move.

For starters, the Super Bowl LIII halftime show was pretty bad. Not awful, but bad enough that dramatic measures probably needed to be taken to prevent it from being so hilariously bad again in the future.

Why did the show leave so much to be desired? Mainly because Jay-Z reportedly turned down the chance to appear, citing the NFL’s unfair denial of employment to Kaepernick, and basically everyone but Travis Scott followed suit.

It’s clear how this alliance would benefit the league—if Jay-Z can harm its entertainment value from the outside, enlisting him should have the opposite effect. The NFL gets a credibility boost from rap’s biggest Big Brother, who could, in theory, single-handedly shift the tide of public opinion in its favor. What’s a little less clear is what Jay will get out of the deal, what his plan is, and what his motivations are. It wasn’t so long ago that he was wearing a “Colin K” jersey during a performance on Saturday Night Live and describing the progenitor of NFL players’ movement to tackle injustice as “iconic.” For whatever else he said during that press conference at the Roc Nation offices last week, Jay-Z also said that he thinks “we’ve moved past kneeling and I think it’s time to go into actionable items.” No one could reasonably disagree, but what about the action already being taken?

This pollster-speak wouldn’t sting as badly as it does had Jay-Z not recently aligned himself with so many social causes. In 2017, he executive-produced an HBO miniseries on Kalief Browder, a man who died by suicide two years after being released from Rikers Island, where he was held for three years without trial. In 2018 Jay-Z executive-produced another doc, about Trayvon Martin, and earlier this month, the five-part docuseries Free Meek arrived on Amazon, courtesy of Roc Nation. Jay-Z and Meek Mill are founding members of a prison reform organization called REFORM Alliance. Jay-Z isn’t every other billionaire, but last Wednesday, he sure sounded like every other billionaire, like every Team Logo avatar on Twitter, like every other “football reasons” guy: “I agree with what you’re saying [in Kaepernick’s initial message]. So what are we gonna do? You know what I’m saying?” he asked. “[Help] millions and millions of people, or we get stuck on Colin not having a job.”

It’s more of the same, and now, as could have been the league’s plan, every player who’s been vocal in his support for Kaepernick will have to answer questions about this deal. There’ll be pressure from the sides as well from the top, just like with the Players Coalition, a group of NFL players seeking racial and social justice. Freddie Gibbs can say “fuck Colin Kaepernick.” Marcellus Wiley can openly judge him on his bona fides: Kaepernick grew up in predominantly white communities, and therefore could never know what real racism is like. (This homespun take gets only half a bar: It is stupid.) On Monday, Dolphins wide receiver Kenny Stills, who split from the coalition along with Kaepernick and Panthers safety Eric Reid when it began to look suspiciously like more league lip service in 2017, said that Jay-Z “didn’t seem very informed” when he spoke at the Roc Nation offices. On Tuesday, coach Brian Flores reportedly played eight Jay-Z songs in a row at practice.

The NFL deal could pan out on the river. These are all reactions to something that doesn’t quite exist yet. There’s a real chance that Jay’s involvement with the “Inspire Change” initiative will bear fruit, that he has actual ideas to go with his platitudes. But then, how can the structural problem ever be fully acknowledged if Kaepernick isn’t involved? Kaepernick’s lawyer, Mark Geragos, told ABC News on Wednesday that Jay crossed an intellectual picket line with this deal.

What, specifically, makes it not a workaround for a league that really does need Jay-Z more than he needs them? And, with reports swirling that Jay could be in for an ownership stake in a to-be-determined NFL franchise, it’s fair to ask how much of Jay-Z, Black Activist, was a grift? Exactly how socially conscious can a billionaire be, really?