By Bomani Jones
Welcome to this month in 2019, when Jay-Z looked more like a billionaire than ever. His company, Roc Nation, signed a deal with the NFL to produce entertainment for events including Super Bowl halftime, ensuring diverse acts for the show. This is an entertainment deal, one that might get more progressive acts to feel better about performing at NFL events. But Roc Nation will also amplify the league’s Inspire Change initiative, which could be roundly described as “social justice stuff.”
He has also supported Colin Kaepernick — who, as you may have heard, still doesn’t have a job — turned down an opportunity to perform at halftime of the Super Bowl and bragged about his defiance of the league on “APES—.”
August also saw Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross — the man behind the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality (RISE), an organization dedicated to fighting racial discrimination in sports — holding a fundraiser for President Donald Trump at a moment when the White House and white supremacy were inextricably linked.
Ross supported his protesting players in 2016 until he felt their demonstrations were offending the public, at which point he led the charge to get players to be cool during the national anthem. He was a face of that request because of the goodwill he had built up as a known ally on the side of right.
Jay-Z and Ross are trying to play both sides. Each wants the world to know he may be an apex predator capitalist, but, beneath the cold cynicism that made each rich, there’s a heart of gold and he wants to fix the wrongs of the world. I mean, it’s possible that’s true. But few become billionaires by being good. Helping uninvested parties isn’t as lucrative as hurting them.
Remember that while watching two men, ostensibly trying to improve race relations in America via sports but doing business with people many think — and, in some cases, know — are aligned on the opposite side of that fight. Notice that they’re moving the same way. Both are billionaires before all.
The NFL got into the social justice business — everything it gets into is business — in 2017, when it started Inspire Change with the Players Coalition, which emerged in the aftermath of Kaepernick’s 2016 protests. But no nonprofit can succeed unless it’s clear that those behind it care about its aims, and the NFL had done little to engender that trust.
The NFL uses Ross and Jay-Z for credibility the league doesn’t have. RISE allows the league to show that one of its owners — sweh fo gawd — really cares about this stuff, and Ross can serve the NFL’s interests while seeming like a voice of reason because of his good works.
Charles Robinson of Yahoo Sports is correct in noting that Jay-Z serves perfectly as the “figurehead” Bills owner Terry Pegula thought the league needed to present itself to the public as dedicated to the matters that concern its players. Jay-Z is respected by black people, and his voice is so big that no owner would ever need to speak on the matter again.
People listen when billionaires talk, and these guys can send the same message to different rooms. But what each has done, with the NFL, is work to effectively take the voices away from the players. On Tuesday, Jay-Z presented Inspire Change as a potential alternative to on-field demonstrations. Ross and his fellow owners must love that. On Wednesday, Jay said he supported protest as long as it’s effective but gave no indication of how to measure that.
Bottom line is, if Jay and the league have their way, no one’s going apes— on their watch.
But Kaepernick’s impact was so great specifically because he did it on the field. He made his point where cameras would be, rather than having to drag them along with him in the streets. He used a specific platform, an NFL football field, to call for a respect for humanity the same way the league uses that platform to venerate the military and save the lives of those fighting cancer. The league knows time and place can be worth more than dollars, but it and its newest partner want to deprive Inspire Change of its most valuable setting while saying that they care. After all, the man who once sold “Occupy All Streets” T-shirts and didn’t share the profits with the Occupy Wall Street protesters is on board, and he said Wednesday, “I think we’re past kneeling,” as if he were one of the players on a knee.
While this happens, Ross is free to do the loudest thing he could: help raise eight figures for the express purpose of amplifying the president’s message. That’s more than the NFL donated to Inspire Change in 2018.
Look, supporting the president and fighting racism may not be antithetical, but the Venn diagram of those most dedicated to fighting racism and those most supportive of the president might be Jim Brown and a few Twitter bots.
For Jay-Z, doing business with the NFL, even with the potential to help “millions and millions of people,” as he put it Wednesday, is hard to reconcile with the indefensible unemployment of the man who spurred the league to get involved in these matters, whom Jay has called “an icon.” It’s glaring that the Roc Nation partnership will serve a program Kap believes is a subversion of his initial message (and one where the league, not the Players Coalition, controls the board). Similarly, while Ross is clear that he and his friend in Washington disagree on race, the money he’s raising will fund a campaign that will almost certainly feature the president’s views on race.
These two might think they can play both sides. The rich always have. But 2019 feels a bit different.
The rich still move with relative impunity, but it’s harder for them to ignore the noise surrounding their decisions. The dedication to dollars seemed more admirable in stronger economic times, and one’s credibility can be checked by the public in ways it couldn’t before. Millennials are strident and demonstrative with their opinions, and they can be performative and principled about their purchases (as Ross’ Equinox and SoulCycle fitness companies learned last week). RISE donors and supporters may wonder if the man they’re supporting is working against him when they turn their backs.
As for Jay-Z, he entered talks with the NFL less than a year after those “APES—” lyrics. If he didn’t need the NFL then, why would he want them now?
Ross and Jay-Z got rich because, duh, that was the point. That is what they’re about first and foremost, like most great athletes are dedicated to their craft above all else. No one gets from Detroit or the Marcy Projects to Park Avenue by accident. They did what it took to get there, and they’ll do more to stay. To expect anything else is naive.
But for men like them to position themselves as anything else is disingenuous. When in conflict with the president, Ross has chosen his friend and what that friend can do for him over his purported principles. While Jay’s support for Kaepernick was almost certainly genuine, he is in bed with Kap’s primary enemies, those who fought the hardest to silence him and his message.
No matter where Jay started, he’s now got more in common with NFL owners than with NFL players. His perspective is informed by his past and, presumably, his blackness, but his actions are largely determined by his present and his portfolio. He’s a billionaire like Stephen Ross and his buddies, and now they’re all doing business. And maybe Ross and Jay-Z can play both sides, helping the world and making beaucoup profits at the same time.
But if they’re forced to choose one, it’s pretty clear which way Ross and Jay-Z will go — the same way they’ve always gone, the one that made them billionaires. How that will play out remains to be seen.