This sounds like a wise business decision for both parties, as each is poised to gain new audiences and unimaginably great branding opportunities. (Roc Nation jerseys, anyone?) And as a Jay-Z fan, I am proud that he has successfully evolved from a hip-hop artist to a billionaire hip-hop artist. I’m also a proud Chicago Bears fan. But this is not a partnership I’m quite ready to embrace.
First, some history. In August 2016, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick remained seated during the national anthem just before kickoff at several preseason games. He soon began to kneel, not because he wanted to disrespect the flag, the military or veterans, but because he wanted to respectfully protest police brutality and social injustice in the country. Throughout the season, Kaepernick continued to protest, and he was eventually joined by some of his teammates and other athletes, both inside and outside of football.
The 49ers wound up with a dismal record, winning just two games during the 2016-2017 season. Kaepernick was more impressive, throwing for 2,241 yards and completing 59.2 percent of passes, and finishing with a QB rating of 90.7. In March 2017, Kaepernick opted out of his contract and became a free agent available to any team in need of a quarterback.
In August 2017, at about the same time as the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, the NFL season began with Kaepernick still unsigned to a team. Protests popped up, some of which suggested he was being punished for his political activism. In September, Jay-Z dedicated his song “The Story of O.J.” to Kaepernick while performing in New York.
In October 2017, Kaepernick filed a grievance against the NFL, accusing the 32 teams of colluding to prevent him from playing. Just days before the filing, Jay-Z wore a Kaepernick jersey while performing on “Saturday Night Live.” In January 2018, Jay-Z called Kaepernick “an iconic figure” and he said he would “100%” advise his own athletes at Roc Nation Sports to conduct similar protests.
It wasn’t until February 2019 that the NFL reached a settlement with Kaepernick and Carolina Panther Eric Reid, Kaepernick’s former 49ers teammate and fellow protester, over their claims of collusion. The terms of the settlement were sealed, but it has been reported that Kaepernick and Reid received less than $10 million total. By then, Kaepernick had become the centerpiece of Nike’s 30th anniversary “Just Do It” campaign.
Losing audience, the NFL needed help and validation, and it has now received both from J-H.O.V.A. himself. I’m not here to knock the hustle; Jay-Z already told us, “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man.” As fans, we can’t be too disappointed when he continues to show us who he is and what his priorities are. Now that he’s at the table, Jay-Z can represent a new voice and perhaps influence the NFL’s decisions and conversations. He might even pull up a seat for others who might not have had the opportunity to be seen or heard.
But what has been lost is the original outrage that drove Kaepernick to his knees. Jay-Z claimed after the partnership was announced that “we’ve moved past kneeling,” but what’s the specific “action” he now says he recommends? Instead of talking about how to address social inequalities and police brutality, we’re now discussing our dream Super Bowl halftime show. Rather than addressing the pain of so many mothers across the country, we’re trying to understand the business decisions of billionaires.
The year Kaepernick began protesting, 962 people were shot and killed by the police; we’re at 566 so far this year. This week, we should be reflecting on the five years since Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Mo. We should be making sure that everyone knows their rights when stopped by the police, whether they are documented or not. We should be talking about the black and brown people “under attack.” We should be talking about the erosion of LGBTQ rights.
We can walk and chew gum at the same time. As hip-hop fans, we can celebrate that our music is finally being welcomed in NFL stadiums across the country, but we need to be sure that the hard work is still getting done. On Wednesday night, the three-year anniversary of his first protest, Kaepernick released a two-minute video, saying he will continue his crusade “despite those who are trying to erase the movement.” I hope he and others will continue to hold the NFL accountable. We all know that the Super Bowl needed Jay-Z more than he needed it, but let’s not forget why we still take a knee.