At the height of one of the most audacious written rules in sport, the PGA’s Caucasians-only clause, the sponsors of an upstart tournament in 1952 in San Diego looking for publicity invited retired boxing legend Joe Louis, who made the semifinals of the 1951 Negro National Open, to play.
But when Louis showed up, he was turned away. So, too, were two other black golfers, including Bill Spiller, who had been trying since Jackie Robinson was allowed to integrate baseball to raze golf’s racist regulation.
The moment became a national story. Louis compared Horton Smith, the PGA boss who reminded the neophyte San Diego tournament organizers of the game’s segregation policy, to Adolf Hitler. A meeting was called for all involved except Spiller. The organizers and PGA decided to try to tamp down the negative publicity by letting only Louis, who had become celebrated by white America as much for his nonconfrontational stance to systemic racism as his left hook, play.
Spiller was so angry that Louis accepted a fronting role for golf — after saying he wouldn’t play unless Spiller and other black golfers could — that he staged a one-man sit-in at the first tee the morning the tournament commenced.
After music mogul Jay-Z revealed this week a partnership with the NFL to co-produce its Super Bowl halftimes, unemployed quarterback Colin Kaepernick — who is about to enter his third season in exile from the NFL for protesting police lethality against unarmed black men in this country — should steal a page from Spiller’s history and protest Jay-Z’s NFL participation.
After all, this is the same Jay-Z who in January 2018 told CNN’s Van Jones he saw Kaepernick, who in February settled a collusion case against the NFL for an undisclosed amount, as an iconic figure who should continue his protest. It’s the same Jay-Z who performed on the premiere of the 43rd season of “Saturday Night Live” in a custom Kaepernick No. 7 jersey. It’s the same Jay-Z who in November 2017, on his “4:44” album tour, told his audience in Miami that Kaepernick and others were “. . . kneeling and putting their fist up . . . about justice, it’s about injustice.”
Jay-Z can’t stand up for Kaepernick while tucking himself into bed with the NFL. It is disingenuous. It is hypocritical. It is fake. It’s like a rapper growing up in tony suburbs rappin’ about trappin’.
Anything less, and Jay-Z is living down to his old biggest hit, “Big Pimpin’.”
This wouldn’t be the first time Jay-Z flimflammed his adoring fans, performing as if he’s down for the cause while actually cashing in on the back end. The documentary film “Battle for Brooklyn” revealed that Jay-Z and wife Beyoncé helped real estate developer and then-Nets owner Bruce Ratner run over a working-class Brooklyn neighborhood, displacing longtime residents, many of whom were black and brown, to make way for Barclays Center.
As the Louis-Spiller story reminded, there were previous times when a black celebrity was used by corporate America to do its bidding in an attempt to quell any disturbance from the black community and its allies. Louis was encouraged to enlist in the military during World War II in part to counter a movement among black men not to partake in the war effort because of how poorly black veterans were treated upon returning from World War I. Robinson accepted an invitation in 1949 from the House Committee on Un-American Activities to denounce athlete-turned-activist Paul Robeson, who had become an unapologetic critic of America’s racial caste system. As rumors developed that black Olympic athletes would boycott or protest the 1968 Mexico City Games, black Olympic legend Jesse Owens, on behalf of the U.S. Olympic Committee, scheduled a meeting with those athletes in an attempt to talk them out of what they were considering.
Jay-Z and his Roc Nation business executives said their association with the NFL will include the social justice initiatives Kaepernick’s protest spurred that resulted in a $90 million investment from the league over seven years that the league calls “Inspire Change.” They provided no specifics of exactly what that will entail, such as, first and foremost — given Jay-Z’s apparent appreciation for Kaepernick — at least a guarantee from the league that Kaepernick will be given an opportunity to regain a job with one of its 32 teams.
Jay-Z appeared at a groundbreaking ceremony for the Barclays developers with whom he sidled up. He did the same this week with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell sharing the podium.
The deal Jay-Z announced with the NFL should have included Goodell standing up for Kaepernick as he did for Michael Sam, who a few years ago was the first openly gay player available in the draft. “I want to see Michael Sam get an opportunity to play in the NFL,” Goodell said five years ago on ESPN. “We like to say the NFL is the ultimate meritocracy. If you can play football, they want to see you play. The teams want you. The fans want you. And that’s ultimately what it’s all about.”
Of course, it shouldn’t have to come to this. The league all but agreed in opting to settle with Kaepernick rather than go to trial that it unfairly discriminated against him by not giving him an opportunity to play. Kaepernick’s grievance with justice wasn’t novel but a part of our democratic discourse. His political posture on the platform of pro football was not as demonstrative as any of the patriotic displays the league presents pregame and in-game.
But if Jay-Z is who he has presented himself to be, the god of rap, a cultural icon in his own right, more had better come out of this partnership with the NFL than some more zeros in his bank account.
Within a week after Spiller sat in on that first tee, the PGA allowed black golfers to play wherever they were invited. Spiller, Louis, Charlie Sifford and a few other black golfers got chances to qualify for the Phoenix Open. It took until 1961, however, for the PGA to rescind its whites-only rule.
Louis, essentially, had been played, as Spiller’s ire suggested. We will know in less time whether Jay-Z has suffered the same.